PARIS (Reuters) - Gray hair and a paunch have replaced the beret, leather jacket and dark glasses but Carlos the Jackal’s defiance remains intact before he stands trial in France for a series of bombings in the 1980s.
The international revolutionary from Venezuela, born Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, built a career as one of the world’s best known guerrillas after a hostage-taking of OPEC oil ministers in the name of the Palestinian struggle in 1975.
Since his capture and sentencing nearly two decades ago, the Jackal has been resident of a French prison.
On Monday, Ramirez, already condemned to life in jail, will face a three-judge terrorism panel to answer charges he was behind four urban bombings in France that killed 11 people and wounded nearly 200 in the early 1980s.
“I am really in a combative mood,” Ramirez, 62, told Europe 1 radio last month. “I’m not fearful by nature...My character is suited to this kind of combat.”
The Marxist with a Che Guevara beret became the face of 1970s and 80s anti-imperialism, his taste for women and alcohol adding to his revolutionary mystique.
“He was the symbol of international leftist terrorism,” said Francois-Bernard Huyghe, a terrorism expert at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations, IRIS, in Paris. “One day it could be in the service of the Palestinian cause, the next day he could put bombs in French trains. He was a kind of star.”
Ramirez’s got his nickname after a reporter saw a copy of Frederick Forsyth’s “The Day of the Jackal” at his flat and mistakenly assumed it to be his.
His larger-than-life ego manifests itself today in waging hunger strikes and writing letters to U.S. President Barack Obama. He also married his attorney inside the prison walls.
But he and his modus operandi are anachronisms, experts say.
“Carlos the Jackal was the Osama bin Laden of his day,” his biographer, John Follain, told Reuters TV. “Terrorism has evolved so much that today he represents a solitary voice in the desert, a pretty old-fashioned voice.”
Huyghe was more blunt: “A man like Carlos is really a dinosaur today. I think of him as ‘historical remains’.”
Prosecutors say the bombs that ripped through trains, stations and parked cars in 1982 and 1983 were Ramirez’s riposte to the police seizure of two of his gang, including his lover.
Ramirez’s fingerprints, they say, were on a threatening letter sent to the interior minister to demand their release.
But Ramirez’s lawyer, Francis Vuillemin, says the letter does not exist and the trial is a sham, based on questionable evidence provided by state secret service agencies.
“Obviously he’s not an angel,” Vuillemin told Reuters TV. “He himself represents himself as a commando officer and as a political revolutionary leader. Those are his words, not mine.”
If found guilty, Ramirez could receive a maximum penalty of life in prison. He would have to serve at least 22 years.
When convicted for killing two French police officers and an informant in 1997, Ramirez raised his handcuffed fist defiantly and smiled before being ushered out of court.
“I was condemned in a sewn-up case, without proof or witnesses,” he told Liberation newspaper last month.
The son of a wealthy Marxist attorney, Ramirez studied in Moscow and soon joined a radical group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. He began his life with a cause, but his constant need for weapons, papers and shelter led him to seek paymasters wherever he could.
With Soviet bloc protectors in short supply by the end of the Cold War, life got more difficult for Ramirez, who hopped from place to place seeking jobs.
By 1994, when he was captured in Khartoum by French agents and brought back to France — an episode Ramirez refers to as his “kidnapping” — the Jackal had morphed into an international gangster paid by shady governments across the world.
However, the former ultra-left commando still bridles at suggestions he was a mercenary.
“I’m certain that this man believes what he says,” said Huyghe. “But when you get into illegality ... you start having links with gangsters and you begin behaving like a gangster.
“It was a very complicated life, sometimes he was in Beirut, sometimes he was in Sudan, he was negotiating with secret services. It’s a kind of business. After all, he is a businessman and he liked money.”
Ramirez converted to Islam in 1975 and his time in prison is spent studying philosophy and reading the news. He particularly supports the European protesters who have taken to the streets to protest against austerity measures and corporate wrongdoing.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez once called his countryman a “revolutionary fighter” but the embassy has stopped sending him Havana cigars in prison, Ramirez complained to Liberation.
He used to run into Manuel Noriega, the former Panamanian strongman who has been locked up in France since 2010, in jail but they have not been allowed to chat recently.
“I can’t shave, I can’t cut my nails — see, they’re tormenting me, they want to make my life difficult,” Ramirez told Europe 1.
Still, Ramirez believes it’s a “miracle” he’s alive today, given what he has been through.
Additional reporting by Pauline Mevel and Thierry Leveque; Editing by Robert Woodward