A week before Christmas, Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, better known as Carlos the Jackal and already serving life for three murders, was given another life sentence at the Palais de Justice in Paris for masterminding a bombing campaign that killed 11 people, according to a witness turning one of them into mincemeat. In order to finish its business on schedule the court sat until just before midnight on Thursday, 15 December: the accused, asked if he had anything to say before sentence was passed, nodded and took more than five hours to say it. ‘Excuse me for taking my time,’ he said, pausing to drink some water. ‘But I’m a living archive and talkative. Revolutionaries tend to be and most of the people at my level are dead.’
Filibustering on in the splendid rhetorical French he has acquired during his last 17 years in various French prisons, he covered a range of subjects that included among the memories of coffee and marijuana at a café near the Sorbonne, the Zionist infiltration of Arab and Western intelligence services and hosannas for the fedayeen killed fighting King Hussein’s bedouin troops in the war that ended Arafat’s military presence in Jordan. ‘Most of my comrades are dead and I’m partly to blame,’ he said, though it has always been suspected he didn’t do much more in Jordan than attend a students’ summer camp with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine before the real fighting started. He was the Venezuelan rich kid straight out of the Kensington crammer his mother sent him to – Carol Thatcher went there too. ‘He is not as clever as he thinks or imagines,’ one end of term report noted. ‘He talks far too loudly and too long.’
Olivier Leurent, who headed the panel of seven judges, meticulously observed the prisoner’s right to speak for as long as he liked, and we heard tributes to Osama bin Laden (‘history will judge him a great man’); to Nicolae Ceausescu, ‘who wiped out Romania’s terrible debt’; and, with Carlos suddenly lachrymose, to another cornered dictator bewildered by the hatred he had sown: ‘Gaddafi was a giant among men,’ Carlos gasped between sobs. ‘This man did more than all the other revolutionary leaders.’ He is certainly supposed to have done a lot for the defendant. In 1975 the Libyan leader bankrolled the hostage-taking raid Carlos led on Opec’s Vienna headquarters (Carlos, it is suspected, awarded himself a generous slice of the ransoms put up for the return of the kidnapped oil ministers). When at last the prisoner could think of nothing more to say, sentence was passed and he was told that he wouldn’t be eligible for parole for another 18 years. At which point he will be 80.
Ramírez Sánchez was born in 1949 in the mountain state of Táchira, near the Colombian border, the eldest son of a lawyer and property developer who never allowed commercial success to undermine a belief in Marxism acquired after an earlier ambition for the priesthood. Despite the objections of their fiercely Catholic mother, his father named all three of his sons after Vladimir Ilich Lenin. But not in that order: Carlos, aka Ilich, is the eldest, followed by Lenin and Vladimir. He was 26 when newspapers first began to call him Carlos the Jackal and describe him as The World’s Most Wanted Man. He was 45 when that career effectively came to an end in Khartoum: his Sudanese hosts sold him to the French and delivered him to the aircraft trussed and sedated. He was 48 when, following three years in custody, he received his first life sentence. That was for 30 seconds of gunplay in a flat in the Latin Quarter in 1975 when he shot dead two French security service officers together with a Lebanese accomplice who had reluctantly led them to him. Although members of the Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire, as it was then known, were supposed to carry pistols, all three turned out to have been unarmed.
Then on 7 November last year, the Jackal was brought back to the Palais de Justice to stand trial for the 1982-83 bombings that had not only killed 11 people but injured about two hundred more. The authorities were worried that he would soon qualify for parole, or that Venezuela would apply to have him serve his sentence there, which would amount to the same thing: the mischievous Chávez has recently found some nice things to say about Carlos, as a champion of the poor and oppressed.
His lawyer, Isabelle Coutant-Peyre, whose lunch with me during the trial consisted entirely of wine, coffee and cigarillos, is not only his lawyer but his wife. She met him in 1997 during his first French trial, when she was a junior member of his defence team, and recently separated from her husband. Afterwards she became involved in various appeals and managed to free him from the perpetual solitary confinement he was being held in. In 2001, they went through a form of Muslim marriage in a prison office: Carlos claimed to have converted to Islam some years before in order to use its scope for polygamy to marry a Palestinian woman half his age. By her own admission, most of Coutant-Peyre’s friends were amazed. Even when she convinced them that she had fallen in love with Carlos and his courtly Spanish ways they could not see the point of this unconsummated union. But by the last week of the trial even her morale was beginning to crack. ‘They are determined to give him another life sentence so that he will die in prison,’ she said, pulling on a cigarillo. ‘We will never be properly married.’
In all there were four bombings in 1982-83, two on high-speed trains. They were committed in order to secure the release from French custody of Magdalena Kopp, a German terrorist who, although her captors didn’t know it, was Carlos’s lover and would become the mother of his only known child and later his first wife. At the Palais de Justice the prosecution case was not that Carlos had planted the bombs himself but that he had masterminded the bombings from the security of hideouts in Damascus and East Berlin. The evidence against him included transcripts of conversations with his accomplices recorded by the Stasi’s hidden microphones as they monitored every move of one of their most sensitive asylum seekers.
Another piece of evidence was a letter to Gaston Defferre, in 1982 France’s interior minister, threatening further carnage if he didn’t release Kopp and the Swiss terrorist arrested with her (they’d been on a mission to assassinate an Arab journalist who had offended the Syrian president Hafez el-Assad). To make certain that his threat wasn’t taken for a hoax Carlos took the trouble to place his thumbprints, obtained from a whisky glass after the Latin Quarter shootings, beneath his signature. Nonetheless, his defence team, paid for by the French equivalent of legal aid, claimed that all the documents, including the Stasi transcripts, were forgeries.
At both his French trials Monsieur Ramírez Sánchez, as the judges were careful to address him, declared he was a scapegoat and a victim of accumulated myth. ‘Carlos is here, Carlos is there, he is a Soviet agent, he is making a nuclear bomb to blow up New York,’ he jeered. He has not always been so contemptuous of his press coverage. In 2007, Kopp, who petitioned for divorce almost as soon as a French jail provided a permanent address for her husband, published an autobiography, The Terror Years: My Life with Carlos. ‘Carlos,’ she observed, ‘created his own myth and is still working on his image.’ Certainly, at times he seems to have had the kind of symbiotic relationship with the media that the legends of America’s Old West enjoyed with the dime novelists who turned William Bonney into Billy the Kid. In fact he has already been the subject of almost as many films as Billy the Kid and inspired nearly as many books. Robert Ludlum and Tom Clancy have both written novels about him; my biography of him appeared in 1976. I was asked by Coutant-Peyre to give him a signed copy. I’d brought an old paperback with me and wrote in it: ‘For Carlos. So many questions I would like to ask you.’ To my surprise, he was flicking through the book during the afternoon session, occasionally looking up to give me what seemed to be a meaningful glance. The tag line on the front cover reads: ‘The Murderous Career of the World’s Most Wanted Man.’
I began the research for my book just after Carlos and five others from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine stormed Opec’s Vienna headquarters, shot dead three people who tried to disarm them, abducted 11 oil ministers and fifty of their staff, then demanded an airliner to fly the hostages to the Middle East, where all were eventually released unharmed, the principals for a king’s ransom. When one of the negotiators asked exactly who he was and what he represented he replied: ‘Tell them I’m from Venezuela and my name is Carlos. Tell them I’m the famous Carlos. They know me.’
This was the high-water mark of his chosen career which, he proudly informed the court, was that of ‘professional revolutionary – in the Leninist tradition’. The legend has faded, however, and coverage of this trial was skimpy, nothing like the 1997 hearing, when the defendant was treated with all the curiosity due to a captured yeti and the press benches were as full as they must have been for Mata Hari or Marshal Pétain. This time they were more than half empty.