With a clenched fist salute and a relaxed smile, Venezuelan militant cell leader Carlos the Jackal went on trial Monday in Paris accused of killing 11 people in four bombings in 1980s France.
The 62-year-old has made no secret of his past as the leader of a gang that carried out attacks on behalf of Warsaw Pact intelligence agencies and far-left or pro-Palestinian causes, but denies the latest French charges.
“I’m a professional revolutionary,” he told judge Olivier Leurent, appearing cheerful and relaxed if a little more pot-bellied, grey and balding than in his heyday as an international conspirator responsible for hundreds of deaths.
Wearing jeans and a blue jacket, Carlos Ilich Ramirez Sanchez waved and gave the left-wing rebels’ traditional salute to a motley collection of supporters struggling to find space alongside dozens of journalists.
“I see I’ve been transported back to the anti-imperialist rallies of the ’70s,” retorted Paul-Albert Iweins, a lawyer representing the families of some of Carlos’ civilian victims.
“Carlos should realise he’s not here for the revolution but to answer for his actions,” he declared.
But the accused leaned on the dock, chatting with his guards, and appeared entirely at ease. When, during testimony, he denounced Israel’s “racist state” and “Zionist exploiters” there were cheers from the gallery.
Speaking before the hearing, French stand-up comic Dieudonne Mbala Mbala, an activist close to far-right circles who has been convicted of anti-Semitism, demanded that “Commander Carlos” be allowed to return home to Venezuela.
Carlos’ lawyers kept up the atmosphere of spectacle, denouncing the “unfair trial” before a panel of anti-terrorism magistrates, without a jury.
Carlos was arrested in Sudan in 1994 and transferred to France, where he has since been held in various jails. In 1997 he was convicted of the 1975 murder of a civilian and two policemen, and jailed for life.
Six weeks of hearings are scheduled, during which Carlos will return nightly under tight guard to his cell in the French capital’s high-security La Sante prison. The trial is due to end on December 16.
Around 20 witnesses are expected to be called, including family members, experts and former accomplices.
One couple who will not be in court are former president Jacques Chirac and his wife Bernadette, who were asked by the defence to testify in connection with the bombing of the “Le Capitole” express train on March 29, 1982 which was running from Paris to the southern city of Toulouse.
Five died in the attack and 28 were wounded.
In a letter to the court, Chirac said he would not testify as he had only “vague and distant memories” of that time, as did his wife.
On Sunday, Carlos boasted in an interview with Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional of committing more than 100 attacks.
Asked about civilian casualties, he told the paper: “There were very few. I calculated that they were fewer than 10 percent. So out of 1,500 to 2,000 killed, there were not more than 200 civilian victims.”
But Carlos’ biographer, Bernard Violet, described the 1,500 death toll claim as “surreal” and accused the publicity-hungry extremist of exaggerating his own crimes to stir media interest in the trial.
Carlos, born in 1949, rose to prominence in 1975 when his commando group burst into the conference room where ministers from the powerful OPEC oil cartel were meeting in Vienna, taking 11 hostage.
His new trial deals with four attacks that are seen as part of a private war Carlos waged against France to free two comrades, including his future wife, who were arrested in Paris while planning to attack the Kuwaiti embassy.
French authorities received a letter, allegedly marked with Carlos’ fingerprints, threatening “war” if the pair were not released within 30 days.
“Le Capitole” attack was claimed by the “International Terrorist Friends of Carlos” and was followed on April 22, 1982, by the Paris car bombing of anti-Syrian newspaper Al-Watan Al-Arabi that killed a passer-by and wounded 60.
On the same day, Carlos’ comrade Bruno Breguet and future wife Magdalena Kopp were convicted of the foiled embassy attack.
Two more bombings took place on New Year’s Eve 1983. One hit a high-speed TGV train between Marseille and Paris, killing three people and wounding 13. Moments later, a bomb in a Marseille train station killed two.
Files released from secret police archives in Hungary, the former East Germany and Romania following the fall of the Iron Curtain allegedly detail Carlos’s involvement in a series of attacks.
Carlos’s lawyers — including Isabelle Coutant-Peyre, whom he married in a Muslim ceremony in prison 10 years ago — argued that files from the former Soviet bloc are unreliable, but the judges refused to throw them out.
Three more suspected members of Carlos’s gang — “Ali” Kamal al-Issawi, Christa-Margot Froehlich and Johannes Weinrich — are on trial in absentia.
Issawi’s whereabouts are unknown, Froehlich is living in Germany which will not extradite her and Weinrich is serving a life sentence in Germany for other attacks, having been arrested in Yemen in 1995.
After the attacks in France, Carlos moved to Syria where he stayed until the 1991 Gulf War, during which Damascus was an ally of the United States and so he was asked to leave.
He then sought refuge in Sudan where, after two decades on the run, Carlos was finally captured in Khartoum in 1994 by French secret service agents acting with the help of the Sudanese government.
Carlos and his lawyers allege he was kidnapped illegally.