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Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, a Venezuelan who Fought for Palestinian Liberation: A Conversation with Vladimir Ramírez Sánchez

An interview with the brother of an internationalist who committed his life to the Palestinian cause.
Vladimir Ramírez Sánchez (BRISA)

Ilich Ramírez Sánchez is known around the world for leading a famous commando that took hostage the oil ministers of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries [OPEC] to make the Palestinian cause known. His methods of struggle made him a target of the French authorities and the Mossad, and he would eventually be kidnapped in Sudan and imprisoned in France with three life sentences. VA talked to Vladimir Ramírez Sánchez, Ilich’s brother, about the extraordinary history of the Venezuelan man who committed his life to the Palestinian cause.

Ilich Ramírez Sánchez in the 1970s (left), 2017 (center), and 2021 (right). (Archive)

Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, also known as Comandante Carlos among the Chavista rank and file, is widely revered among the Venezuelan left. However, the global mainstream media and even Hollywood have done their part to disfigure his life and struggle. Can you tell us the real story of your brother Ilich?

Ilich was born in Caracas on October 12, 1949, so he just turned 74. Our father was a successful lawyer and a committed Marxist-Leninist. However, he never took up arms: he was an intellectual. Some have said that our father was a millionaire. This is false; he earned enough to maintain the family in good living conditions, but in fact, we grew up in a middle-class to lower-middle-class sector of Caracas called El Silencio. 

My mother was a working-class person who didn’t go to university: she came from a very poor Catholic family and she was inspired by the example of Jesus Christ, so she was a very solidarious person. My mom’s solidarity and my dad’s communist ideals forged my character and that of my two brothers… and also our names! First came Ilich, then came Lenin, and I’m the youngest, Vladimir.

When Ilich and Lenin were little, they studied with Marxist-Leninist teachers. It was the late 50s and early 60s and Venezuela’s governments were decidedly anticommunist. Communist teachers were out of work, so my dad hired them as tutors. 

In 1961, both Lenin and Ilich began high school at the Fermín Toro High, which was well-known for forming many revolutionaries. There, they began to hear about the guerrilla movement and came to understand that Venezuela’s so-called democratic government was actually at the service of US imperialism and the local bourgeoisie. Massacres of those who rebelled against the regime were the order of the day.

At the age of 13, Ilich joined the Communist Party Youth, where he continued his process of radicalization. Ilich was also influenced by Che Guevara and by the struggles – and all-out wars – in South America, Africa, and Vietnam. 

Ilich and Lenin graduated from High School in 1966. The situation was so hot that my father, who was a revolutionary but afraid of the consequences should my brothers become involved in the armed struggle, decided to send the three of us abroad with my mother. My father was particularly concerned about Ilich: he was sure that since my brother was radicalizing and a natural leader, he would surely join the guerrilla and go to the front if he stayed in Venezuela. 

And so my dad sent us to London, while he stayed in Venezuela. He was able to maintain the family with hard work and he would visit us every six months or so. In London we lived in humble conditions but with dignity. 

In 1968 Ilich and Lenin got a grant from Venezuela’s Communist Party to study at the Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow. I stayed in England with my mom, and both my brothers went to the Soviet Union. Ilich studied chemistry and Lenin physics. In Moscow, Ilich got to know people from all around the world: from Africa, from Latin America, from Europe, from Asia, and he also became acquainted with the struggle of the Palestinian people. 

By 1970, there had been a shift in Venezuela’s Communist Party. The party made a rupture with the tactic of armed struggle. Those people who had a different position on armed struggle were “let go.” That’s how 20 Venezuelan kids studying at Lumumba University lost their grants, among them Ilich and Lenin. 

Ilich and Lenin’s years at Lumumba University were over, but their lives had been forever changed by their encounter with people from all around the world. Ilich was particularly transformed: by now he was a communist and an internationalist. He had also become convinced that defeating the Zionist regime was an urgent matter: for one, justice was owed to the Palestinians, but he was also convinced that defeating Israel would be a strategic blow to the interests of US imperialism and its associates. 

Inspired by Che, Ilich joined the Palestinian cause. He went to Jordan in 1970, where he participated in the Black September War against the Jordanian government and joined the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine [PFLP]. The PFLP was a Marxist-Leninist movement committed to Palestinian liberation. The organization recognized Ilich as a leader, and he was assigned several tasks and actions in Europe. That’s when Ilich came back to London, but he never told us about his involvement with the PFLP for security reasons. 

At that time, Ilich was in the information and intelligence wing of the PFLP, and his home base was between London, where he made some money teaching Spanish, and France. In 1975 my mother, my brother Lenin, and I moved back to Venezuela. That’s the last time I saw my brother Ilich free. 

In the mid-70s, the Mossad engaged in a covert operation against Palestinian fighters in France employing tactics like car and telephone bombs that claimed the lives of several members of the Palestinian resistance. Ilitch was part of a PFLP unit whose leader was assassinated by a bomb. Afterward, Michel Moukarbel, a Lebanese militant, was appointed as the new leader. However, on a trip to Lebanon, Moukarbel was arrested by Lebanese police and Mossad agents at the airport. Threatened with imprisonment or worse, he began to collaborate. Moukarbel went back to France and he prepared to hand over his unit to the Mossad. 

In June 1975, my brother, who was studying and working for the PFLP in Paris at the time, went to the party of a Venezuelan woman who was going back home. Moukarbel showed up with three DST agents [French intelligence]. The agents wanted to imprison Ilich, and that’s when Ilich realized that he had been betrayed by Moukarbel. Ilich managed to kill Moukarbel and two police officers while injuring a third, and was able to escape. 

That’s when the French government began a coordinated all-out hunt for Ilich. In the beginning, they didn’t have his real name. It so happens that as a Spanish teacher in London, Ilich had a woman friend whose boyfriend had become quite jealous. When the guy saw the pictures of Ilich in the newspaper, he went to report Ilich to Scotland Yard and informed that “the fugitive” had left a suitcase in his girlfriend’s apartment. 

The police went to the girlfriend’s apartment in Bayswater in London. During the search, the police were accompanied by a Guardian journalist, who would later call Ilich “The Jackal because he saw Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal, on the shelf that was hiding Ilich’s suitcase. In the luggage, the police also found arms and other documents related to Ilich’s work for the PFLP. 

I understand that the French police were not able to capture Ilich and that he next went to the Middle East. 

Yes, the search was by now international, but the police never managed to capture Ilich. He went first to the Middle East, but by December 1975 he was back in Europe, in Vienna, to assault the OPEC headquarters during a summit that gathered the oil ministers of the member countries. Ilich led an internationalist commando that included Palestinian and Arab fighters, European ones, and himself, a Latin American. It was financed by Muammar Gaddafi. Ilich claimed that Libya promoted the assault because OPEC – with Iran, then led by the Shah Reza Pahlavi, and Saudi Arabia at the helm – were keeping the price of oil relatively low in exchange for US support. 

The commando’s objective was twofold: they wanted to force a public conversation about the struggle of the Palestinians that would lead to Palestine being recognized as a state. They also demanded that OPEC countries break free from their subservience towards the US, NATO, and Israel, and focus on the needs of the people in the oil-producing countries and the people of the Third World.

The commando took swift control of the OPEC headquarters, taking the ministers hostage. They managed to get an airplane from the Austrian authorities and flew out to Algiers, where they released all the hostages except for Saudi Arabia’s Zaki Yamani – a figure with international profile – and the Iranian minister. 

From there, they wanted to go to Iraq, but they stopped in Libya to refuel. However, contrary to all expectations, Gaddafi got cold feet and did not let them refuel. The situation was critical, so they had to negotiate the release of the two ministers, but they were able to get a ransom of 50 million USD from each of their respective countries. The funds would be destined to the Palestinian cause. 

The OPEC operation became an international event, and Ilich must have become a target not only of France but most of the Western world. Nonetheless, as I understand it, that didn’t stop Ilich from building more internationalist alliances.

That is correct. Ilich had become an international target for the French, for US imperialism, and for Zionism, and he had to stay on the move. However, he continued to organize and participate in actions for the Palestinian cause. He was also in contact with the Italian Red Army, Germany’s Red Army Faction [RAF], Ireland’s IRA, the Basque Country’s ETA, and the Japanese Red Army. They were building an international alliance to confront Imperialism and Zionism.

By 1991, with the fall of the Soviet Union, the political map changed drastically and Ilich’s mobility was greatly limited. Ilich had been living in Syria with his wife Magdalena Kropp, a RAF member. The US placed Syria on the list of countries supporting terrorism in part because Ilich was living there, so he was asked to leave. Ilich then tried to go to Libya, but that didn’t work out. Eventually, Omar al-Bashir’s government in Sudan gave him asylum, and he moved there while Magdalena and their daughter came to Venezuela and stayed with us. 

The CIA and the Mossad were after Ilich, and what Ilich didn’t know is that Omar al-Bashir had received 50 million dollars to hand him over.

On August 14, 1994, Ilich had a small medical operation. As usual, he was accompanied by a Sudanese military detail. After the operation, they told Ilich that they weren’t going back to his home for safety issues. In the middle of the night, when he was sleeping, the soldiers turned against him and injected him with a sedative. 

He was restrained, put in a sack, and taken to the Khartoum airport, where he was handed over to two French officials. Ilich, still asleep, was flown to France in a private jet. When he woke up, he was greeted by a French official who informed him that he was under investigation for his crimes against France and handed him an arrest warrant. 

Of course, the whole process was flawed: Ilch had been kidnapped in Sudan, where he had asylum, and the warrant was for his arrest in France. Ilich has been in prison for 29 years now. The first thing they did to him was to put him in isolation for ten years. They deprived Ilich of sleep by turning on the lights every hour or so to “make sure he was ok.” 

Ilich was tried and condemned to life in prison in 1997 for the 1975 murder of the two policemen and the Lebanese traitor. It’s important to note that the French authorities did not call eyewitnesses of the event to testify. If they had, it would have become obvious that Ilich shot the three in self-defense. There was, of course, an appeal, but it wasn’t allowed to proceed. In 2011, Ilich was tried for placing bombs on trains and radio stations in 1982 and 1983. In other words, he was tried for events that had happened more than 20 years before. 

Ilich didn’t stand a chance: he didn’t have the right to a legitimate defense since judges and juries had him condemned before the trial began. It didn’t matter to them that evidence was bogus and witnesses were missing. Ilich had been condemned by the status quo, and the verdict came as a second life sentence. In this case, the justice system accepted an appeal. The appeal trial was held in 2013, but the verdict was upheld. 

Finally, Ilich’s last trial was in 2017: he was judged for a 1974 grenade attack on Le Drugstore, a café in Paris, where two people died. Once again, he was condemned to life in prison, the third life sentence by now. 

Ilich was condemned based on a handwritten letter that supposedly had his signature and fingerprint. When the defense questioned the validity of the letter and asked the dactyloscopy expert to testify, the expert said that when he was called to carry out the forensic analysis of the letter, he had not been given the time nor the resources to verify the validity of the document. 

When Ilich went on trial, he was presumed guilty from the start because he was “the Jackal,” a terrorist, and not a freedom fighter dedicated to the Palestinian cause. 

The International Brigade for Active Solidarity Ilich Ramírez Sánchez (BRISA) is a Venezuelan organization working now for the transfer of Ramírez Sánchez to Venezuela. (BRISA)

Ilich is 74 years old and he has spent almost 30 years behind bars. What is his situation at the moment?

Ilich is illegally imprisoned because he was kidnapped by the French government. For years our initial demand was his release, but there has been no response from either the French or Venezuelan authorities. As a result, we [BRISA] have shifted our approach and are now advocating for his transfer to Venezuela.

What does this mean? Both France and Venezuela are signatories of the Strasbourg Convention, which establishes that a citizen of a member country who is in prison in another member country can request to be transferred to their country of origin and complete the sentence there. However, for that to happen, the person has to request it – Ilich has – and both countries have to approve it. In 2021, following the specifications of the Strasbourg Convention, a letter was sent to Venezuela’s Ministry of Justice requesting Ilich’s transfer back home. Remigio Ceballos, the Justice Minister, has not responded, so we are still waiting. 

Minister Ceballos must decide on this matter soon. Ilich is 74, he has been locked up in France for 29 years and two months. He is beginning to have memory lapses due to the sleep deprivation that he endured for ten years. He needs to be near his loved ones. I should add that the French authorities have said that Ilich could be transferred if approved by the Venezuelan authorities. 

Chávez claimed Ilich as a Venezuelan revolutionary and as an internationalist. Ilich fought for the liberation of Palestine. We want Ilich back home!

Are you able to talk to your brother on a regular basis? If so, what is Ilich telling you about the ongoing genocide of the Palestinian people?

I’m able to talk to Ilich once a week and he is very affected by what is happening to the Palestinian people in Gaza. He joins his voice with the voice of millions of Palestinians and hundreds of millions of people around the world who have said: no more, the Zionist regime must come to an end right now! Palestine has a right to exist, and the Palestinian people have a right to their land and to live in peace. The West must cease its political, economic, and military support of a genocidal regime. The discourse that identifies Israelis as victims and Palestinians as terrorists is not only a lie, but it is exhausted as the world witnesses the genocide against the Palestinian people in real-time.