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Isabelle Coutant Peyre: defender of last resort

The notorious French defense lawyer and wife of Carlos the Jackal explains why she embraces criminals the world despises.

(photo by Vincent Kessler/Reuters)

Outside of the Palais de Justice courtroom on Paris’s historic Île de la Cité, protestors hurled the vilest of insults at Isabelle Coutant Peyre.


A lawyer notorious in France for defending people derided as public villains, in May she represented Youssouf Fofana, who masterminded the 2006 kidnapping of a Jewish man held captive and tortured for three weeks before he was left for dead. Coutant Peyre earned herself a lot of scorn before withdrawing from the case. Supporters of the victim, Ilan Halimi — who was 23 when he was lured into captivity, beaten and burned — also sent menacing letters to her office and to a private e-mail address she had not publicized.


In an interview with GlobalPost Passport, the slight 56-year-old brunette shrugged off the insults. “I’ve known worse,” she said. She wore a white blouse and black slacks, and spoke between drags on a cigarillo, the grey smoke filtering out with her words. She casually described past incidents, like receiving miniature coffins and a .22-caliber rifle bullet with a note warning: “the next one will not arrive in the mail.”  The man responsible barely received a slap on the wrist, she said, even after an arsenal, night vision goggles and a silencer were found in his home. 


“If his name had been Mohammed, he would have been in prison for a long time,” she said.


Her outspoken views on matters like the double standard she perceives in France’s treatment of Jews versus Arabs, Muslims and blacks, have compounded the distain for Coutant-Peyre, and have added to her reputation as the defender of last resort. Criminals like Fofana, the now-convicted ringleader sentenced to life in prison in the Halimi murder trial, seek her out. Fofana, a French-born 28-year-old whose Muslim parents emigrated from the Ivory Coast, was tried along with 26 others from a gang calling itself, “The Barbarians.”


An international business lawyer by training, Coutant-Peyre is also a self-proclaimed defender of left-leaning causes. Although she harbors outspoken views against Israel, she denies being an anti-Semite. She calls her clients “revolutionaries” who challenge the system; others call them radical Islamists and terrorists.


One of her most prominent clients is Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, known as Carlos the Jackal, once among the world’s most wanted fugitives. Ramirez’s name has also been linked to a string of other activities, including several bombings in France in the early 1980’s that killed and wounded dozens. For the past eight years, he has also been Coutant Peyre’s husband. While acknowledging the “extra inconvenience” of being married to the incarcerated Venezuelan Communist, she continues to head his legal team. Ramirez is serving a life sentence for the 1975 deaths of two French police officers and a Lebanese informant, a case Coutant Peyre regards as illegal. 


Raised in a comfortable environment that was relatively “anti-authority intellectually,” Coutant Peyre said she formed her political views over time but especially when she started practicing law in 1981, a period of great unrest in France.


“I’m uncontrollable,” she said. “This is a profession where you’re better off being well-regarded. But this institution itself does not like people to challenge the rules.  Me? I have no fear. When there is something that must be said, if it’s not a lawyer who says it, who is going to do it?”


In an effort to understand how this highly visible and controversial French figure sees the world, GlobalPost Passport visited Coutant Peyre in her office. She shared her views on racism, her husband and the Fofana trial. She called France “a totalitarian state,” expressed outrage at the unbridled backing Israel receives from both the French and U.S. governments, conveyed her unabashed support for Iran, and called President Barack Obama’s election a kind of  “cosmetic surgery” that has resulted in little policy change by the United States.


Passport: You say the Fofana case was political, implying that justice was not the priority. Why?


Isabelle Coutant Peyre: This case made a lot of noise. All brutal deaths are shocking. When they found Halimi — and he died while being transferred to the hospital — there was a huge protest with all the organizations that I call Zionist, those that openly defend the interests of Israel.


[French President Nicolas] Sarkozy, who was interior minister at the time, was at the head of the protest. So, it was clearly political. He has never done that when there has been a black, Arab or Muslim victim that has been killed. These are political choices. 


The Fofana/Halimi case had incredible resonance as well as extraordinary media coverage because it was a political choice by the government to make an example out of this case. I don’t see why this case should be any more of an example than if it was a black person or an Arab or a Muslim victim who died.


Passport: How do you view the relationship between Washington and Paris and Israel?


Coutant Peyre: Letting criminals, namely Israel’s leaders, parade around [our capitals] is a big mistake. We can’t simultaneously talk about and make speeches about international justice and continue to practice double standards.


International relations have always been based on power dynamics but now we’re pretending the opposite. We pretend that we’re looking for balance [in the Middle East], which is completely false. I think it’s shortsighted to not be more forceful with Israel because the U.S. has the power to be more forceful. But now, to go only at Iran is completely ridiculous. I am completely on the side of Iran’s leaders. [The U.S.] continues to show [itself as] a bad example, and continues to kill innocent people in Afghanistan; it is shameful. It is shameful.”


Even Obama, who for me is cosmetic surgery. He’s much more presentable and likeable than George W. Bush, but aside from that the American apparatus functions in the exact the same way.


Passport: Are you still defending Carlos the Jackal? Are his cases continuing?


Coutant Peyre: His situation is very shocking because France is serving as a jailer for the United States. It was the Americans and the CIA that organized his capture in Sudan (in 1994), which was completely illegal by national and international law. No state has the right to kidnap a foreign citizen. He is Venezuelan and he was in Sudan. The CIA mounted the operation and France received the gift. The people who physically took care of his capture were the French. French judges have refused to take a position on the legality of this operation. From a legal standpoint, it was an illegal operation. 


I would ask Obama to ask Sarkozy to stop this illegality and allow Ilich Ramirez Sanchez to return to Caracas, Venezuela.


Carlos has nothing to do with France. There was no proof against Carlos. Just like in the case of Fofana, there is no proof that it was him who tortured — sure this young man (Halimi) was mistreated but he was not tortured as has been said; it doesn’t appear like this in the case files but I can’t speak further on this point since the case (against some of the defendants) is going to be retried.


Passport: What message do you have for Carlos’ victims?


Coutant Peyre: Listen, it’s very sad, but Carlos’ adversaries and political enemies certainly have racked up more victims. There are many more victims on the other side. There are a lot of deaths that result from operations mounted by secret services but we never talk about those.  I am a lawyer. I defend people and their cases. Being his wife changes nothing. I’m an attorney first and foremost. I’m not at all implicated in these people lives.


When Mr. Bush committed his crimes against humanity in Iraq, did anyone ask Mrs. Bush what she had to say to the victims? Today, we’re not going to ask Mrs. Obama what she thinks of the victims in Afghanistan or what she has to say to the victims in Afghanistan. I have political convictions. As an attorney, I choose cases that correspond to my political opinions. I couldn’t defend someone from the extreme right in a political case, I just couldn’t. I defend revolutionaries.


Passport: Do you agree with Carlos’ political leanings?


Coutant Peyre: I share his analysis on the relationship between politics and power. I am not an anti-semite, which has been absolutely proven, but I am simply against the policies carried out by the state of Israel. I find it extremely shocking and I am simply outraged, since I studied international law, to see that we tolerate war crimes and crimes against humanity from this government, without reprisal.  It is absolutely unacceptable and very shocking for an attorney. I say it’s even hopeless.


Passport: What have your peers and France’s legal institutions made of your radical views? Have they tried to disbar you?


Coutant Peyre: They’ve tried. I have not stopped fighting but all this takes time and one must remain vigilant. I tell the truth. In France, we don’t have the right to talk about mistakes committed by the government. It’s a totalitarian country; that’s nothing new. France is not supposed to be a dictatorship. It claims to be a democracy. Everything is political when it concerns the relationship between power and the government.