Europe
11:01 pm
Sun November 13, 2011

Carlos The Jackal: On Trial Again, And Still Defiant

Originally published on Mon November 14, 2011 6:13 am

Carlos the Jackal, the man who sowed fear during the Cold War with terrorist attacks in Europe and the Middle East, has now been in prison for close to two decades.

But he's once again on trial in France, and the case has riveted the country.

French television footage showed Carlos being taken to the Palais de Justice in an armored van guarded by policemen darting about with machine guns. In this case, Carlos is accused of masterminding four bomb attacks in France in the early 1980s that killed 11 people and wounded more than 100.

Philippe Rouault was in the street when a car bomb linked to Carlos exploded in 1982.

"The windows blew out of every building. There was black smoke everywhere and sheer panic," Rouault said. "It was an apocalypse. The explosion threw me forward, and my back was completely burned."

Carlos, 62, was born Ilich Ramirez Sanchez into a wealthy, Marxist family in Caracas, Venezuela. A brilliant polyglot, Sanchez seems like a character out of a John le Carre spy thriller from a bygone era.

He is suspected of orchestrating the 1975 seizure of OPEC oil ministers in Vienna and the 1976 Palestinian hijacking of a French jetliner to Entebbe, Uganda, which ended with a spectacular Israeli commando raid. John Follain, who wrote a biography of Carlos, says he was the Osama bin Laden of his time.

"He was the No. 1 terrorist mastermind, at least considered that way by the Western powers, including the United States. Several Western governments tried to eliminate him — that includes France under President Mitterrand and the U.S., the CIA," said Follain.

Follain says Carlos wanted to fight imperialism and was drawn to the Palestinian cause in particular. For years he was uncatchable because of his support behind the Iron Curtain and in the Middle East. But when communism fell, Carlos became vulnerable. He was captured by the French in Khartoum, Sudan, in 1994.

Today, he is already serving a life sentence for the killing of two French secret service agents and an informer. But he could be released in seven years.

Carlos Remains Defiant

Prosecutors have built their current case on intelligence documents from former Eastern Bloc nations.

"We're gonna fight," said his wife and lawyer Isabelle Coutant-Peyre. "There's no reason, 30 years later, why France should be able to judge him for reasons of propaganda, not justice. This is nothing but a political trial, and he will have plenty to say."

Carlos is also suing the French state for kidnapping him from Sudan. When his latest trial began, he held up a defiant fist and listed his job as "professional revolutionary." His lawyers say he's still committed to the cause. Others say he seemed stuck in a time warp.

But Carlos still fascinates. Just last year, the Cannes Film Festival opened with Olivier Assayas' five-hour drama about his life. It's been running again on French television.

Though Carlos has spent much of his last 15 years in solitary confinement and is forbidden to speak to the media, he gave a radio interview on a recorder that was smuggled in. It was broadcast on the popular station Europe 1.

"My biggest regret is that I missed out on family life," said Carlos, speaking in heavily accented French. "I was an absent husband and wasn't there to raise my kids. But that was the price to pay."

Carlos said if he ever gets out of French prison and back to Venezuela, the first thing he'll do is to take his honeymoon.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Carlos the Jackal is on trial in Paris. He's the man accused of a series of deadly bombings in France almost 30 years ago. The Venezuela man sowed fear during the Cold War with terrorist attacks in much of Western Europe and the Middle East. Now, the former assassin is unrepentant and hoping to win his freedom and return home. Eleanor Beardsley sends this report.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: France is riveted on the trial of Carlos the Jackal, which began this month under high security at Paris' Palais de Justice. French Television footage showed Carlos, as he is known, being brought to court in an armored van guarded by policemen darting about with machine guns. Carlos is accused of masterminding four bomb attacks in France in the early '80s that killed 11 people and wounded more than 100. Philippe Rouault was in the street when a car bomb linked to Carlos exploded in 1982.

PHILIPPE ROUAULT: (Through Translator) The windows blew out of every building. There was black smoke everywhere and sheer panic. It was an apocalypse. The explosion threw me forward and my back was completely burned.

BEARDSLEY: 62-year-old Carlos the Jackal was born Ilich Ramirez Sanchez into a wealthy, Marxist family in Caracas. A brilliant, cold-blooded, polyglot, Carlos seems like a character out of a John le Carre spy thriller from a bygone era.

He is suspected of masterminding the 1975 seizure of OPEC oil ministers and the 1976 Palestinian hijacking of a French jetliner to Entebbe, Uganda, which ended with a spectacular Israeli commando raid. John Follain, who wrote a biography of Carlos, says he was the Osama bin Laden of his time.

JOHN FOLLAIN: He was the number one terrorist mastermind, at least considered that way by the Western powers, including the United States. And several Western governments tried to eliminate him, both France under President Mitterrand and the U.S., the CIA.

BEARDSLEY: Follain says Carlos wanted to fight imperialism by joining the Palestinian Liberation movement and extreme left wing groups. For years, he was ungettable because of his support behind the Iron Curtain and in the Middle East. But when communism fell, Carlos was caught by the French in Khartoum in 1994.

He's already serving a life sentence for the killing of two French secret agents and an informer. But he could be released in seven years. Prosecutors have built their current case on intelligence documents from former Eastern Bloc nations. Some analysts doubt there is enough proof to link Carlos to the French bombings.

Isabelle Coutant-Peyre is one of his lawyers who became his wife. Carlos wed her in a prison ceremony in 2001.

ISABELLE COUTANT-PEYRE: (Through Translator) We're going to fight. Because there's no reason, 30 years later, why France should be able to judge him for reasons of propaganda, not justice. This is nothing but a political trial and he will have plenty to say.

BEARDSLEY: Carlos sued the French state for kidnapping him from Sudan. When his trial started, he held up a defiant fist and listed his job as professional revolutionary. Carlos's lawyers say he's still committed to the cause. Journalists following the trial say he seems stuck in a time warp.

But thirty years on Carlos still fascinates. The Cannes Film Festival opened just last year with Olivier Assayas's five-hour drama about his life and crimes. It's been running again on French television.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CARLOS")

EDGAR RAMIREZ: (as Carlos the Jackal) I'm a solider. I'm not a martyr.

BEARDSLEY: Though Carlos has spent much time in solitary confinement and is forbidden to speak to the media, he stunned officials by giving a radio interview on a smuggled-in recorder. It was broadcast on popular station Europe One.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO BROADCAST)

CARLOS THE JACKAL: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: My biggest regret is that I missed out on family life, said Carlos, speaking in heavily-accented French. I was an absent husband and I wasn't there to raise my kids.

But that was the price to pay. Carlos said if he ever gets out of French prison and back to Venezuela, the first thing he'll do is to take his honeymoon.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.