PARIS (Reuters) - All the world’s a stage for Carlos the Jackal, the veteran Marxist militant who since last month has reigned with imperious bluster over his trial in France on terrorism charges.
But while theatrical antics have been a daily feature of a trial now in its fourth week, Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, once the most wanted international criminal looks out at a steadily dwindling audience from his caged-in defendant’s box.
Charged with four bloody bomb attacks in France in 1982 and 83 that killed 11 people and wounded nearly 200, the 62-year-old Venezuelan has cast himself as a revolutionary fighter with contacts in high places who has suffered “inhumane” conditions in a French prison since his capture nearly two decades ago.
Asked by a judge to clarify his position on the attacks, Ramirez responded, “There are three possibilities: I am innocent, I am guilty, or I‘m saying, ‘Go screw yourself.'”
Three co-defendants are being judged in abstentia, with two of them fugitives and another in prison in Germany.
Interrupting judges, correcting lawyers and talking over speakers, Ramirez carries himself like an unfairly deposed head of state, rather than a convicted killer already serving life sentences for previous lethal attacks in France.
On Friday, a former comrade in the witness stand described his former boss as a cold-blooded killer with no scruples, sending Ramirez into a rage and provoking a quasi-avowal.
Earlier in the trial, Ramirez launched into a rambling tirade against his accusers while critiquing the quality of the bread in prison.
“In Fresnes (prison), the bread was delicious, real French bread, now it’s just lousy, too dry,” he complained, Le Figaro newspaper reported.
Once the face of Marxist struggle and the Palestinian cause, Ramirez spent much of the 1970s and 80s launching anti-imperialist attacks around the world in operations funded by Soviet-bloc and Middle Eastern countries.
Ramirez, who sported a Che Guevara-style beret and cultivated a taste for Havana cigars, sealed his renown with a bloody hostage-taking in 1975 of OPEC oil ministers. His luck ran out in 1994 when French special forces captured him in Khartoum, bringing him to France to face trial.
He has scoffed at the current case against him that took 13 years to build -- due, according to the former lead judge, to the painstaking process of culling dusty Eastern European secret service archives. His lawyers argue the case is fixed.
Ramirez’ biographer, John Follain, said that Ramirez’ courtroom antics are as much about strategy as about character.
“It’s not just mouthing off in the dark, it’s a conscious tactic,” said Follain. “It’s Carlos challenging the right of the French state to put him on trial and hold him to account.”
Ramirez has boasted in court of his fighting prowess, calling himself an “elite gunman” with a sensitive side: “I am emotional but in combat I have an unbelievable sang-froid.”
At the same time, he has waxed nostalgic over old memories, such as smoking hashish at a cafe near the Sorbonne in the early 1970s, and has offered the occasional self-deprecating comment.
“I am a big talker,” he told the court.
The crowds in the Paris courtroom have thinned considerably since Ramirez first appeared in the defendant’s box last month, declaring himself “a revolutionary by profession” and flashing a clenched fist salute at supporters.
Most journalists have lost interest in the case and the grueling court schedule has tired out the 51 civil parties who were either wounded or whose family members died in the attacks.
But though his audience has waned, Ramirez’ energy has not.
Speaking rapid-fire French with a thick accent, Ramirez addresses the court through a narrow opening in the rectangular sheath of hardened glass covered by a cage-type ceiling at one side of the courtroom.
He is often imperious, sometimes rude, pointing his finger at the prosecutor and raising his voice to fill the ornate courtroom decorated with walls of gold silk and carved wood.
“Are there any more questions?” he demanded of an interrogating lawyer representing victims.
Ramirez interrupted another when he referred to his co-defendants as “friends.”
“Comrades!” barked Ramirez, correcting him.
By this point, the patience of the opposing side has worn thin. “You never want to respond to the questions!” a clearly frustrated lawyer complained last week.
Le Figaro described Ramirez as behaving like a “capricious child” who calls to one of his attorneys, Francis Vuillemin “as if he were whistling for a valet.”
Ramirez will occasionally break off his tirades to lean back in his chair and smile contentedly as if he has just enjoyed a fine meal -- an avuncular presence in the defendant’s box.
The trial is due to finish in mid-December and a verdict delivered soon thereafter.
“Beyond the fireworks and the smile and the jokes and the nice friendly grand-dad character one has to bear in mind what he’s accused of,” said Follain. “This trial, despite the theatrics, is deadly serious business.”
Additional reporting By Thierry Leveque and Chine Labbe