A Canadian citizen has returned home to his family and friends after spending more than three years in a French prison on false charges he was involved in the lethal bombing of a Paris synagogue nearly 40 years ago.
Hassan Diab, 64, arrived in Ottawa on 15 January to a warm welcome from his wife Rania Tfaily and two young children, despite efforts by Israel and its supporters to keep him in prison.
Diab was also met by a host of supporters who had worked for years to free him following his extradition to France on accusations he masterminded the attack.
On 3 October 1980, as hundreds of people gathered for prayers on the eve of the Jewish sabbath at the synagogue in Rue Copernic, a powerful explosion brought down the building’s roof and killed four people.
This was considered the first such attack motivated by anti-Semitism since World War II and was immediately blamed on the far right – an unknown group claimed the attack in the name of fascists.
Days later, some 200,000 people marched in Paris “against fascism,” according to the newspaper Le Figaro.
But French investigators focused their attention on groups linked to the Middle East and in 2007 an investigating judge accused Diab, a sociology professor in Ottawa, of masterminding the bombing. Diab was arrested in Quebec the following year. He maintained his innocence, but was extradited to France in 2014.
Throughout his ordeal, his community in Canada never stopped fighting for him through the Hassan Diab Support Committee. Their efforts paid off.
But in an email announcing his return home, the committee warned, “this is not the end of Hassan’s ordeal.” French authorities are set to appeal the decision to release him.
“So, the outcome remains uncertain, and we’re not completely out of the woods yet,” the committee added. “But for now, we can say that justice prevailed and Hassan is back in Canada and that is worth celebrating.”
“Perfectly innocent man”
On 12 January, two “anti-terrorist” investigating judges in France threw out the case against Diab.
They ordered his immediate release, finding that the accusations against him were unfounded, and that there was too much exculpatory evidence.
“An overwhelming body of evidence shows Dr. Diab cannot have been in France in 1980 when the attack was perpetrated, as many elements confirm he was in Beirut during that period of time,” the Hassan Diab Support Committee stated.
The Lebanese-born Diab – who has a common name – considered it a case of mistaken identity that morphed into a years long nightmare for his family.
The committee also pointed to “numerous contradictions and misstatements” contained in intelligence used against him, “as well as the fact that Dr. Diab’s handwriting, fingerprints, palm prints, physical description and age do not match those of the suspect identified in 1980.”
This short film explains his case, shows the impact on his family, and highlights the campaign to bring him home:
“Most countries do not use or accept secret intelligence against a person, France does,” Diab’s Canadian lawyer Don Bayne explains in the video.
Bayne says that abundant evidence “exonerates Diab,” who he describes as a “perfectly innocent man.”
“Indignant” Israel lobby
“This decision in such a serious terrorism case is exceptional. It must remind us that the acknowledgement of a suspect’s innocence in a terrorism case is always a long road but can be obtained with relentless work,” Diab’s French lawyers William Bourdon, Apolline Cagnat and Amélie Lefebvre stated.
France’s main Jewish communal and Israel lobby group CRIF has however never waited for the wheels of justice to turn in Diab’s case, labeling him the “terrorist of the Rue Copernic attack” in a press release.
CRIF called itself “indignant” about the judges’ order to free Diab this month.
The Israeli embassy in Paris has also used Diab’s extradition and the allegation he was a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine as part of its propaganda justifying Israel’s military detention of Salah Hamouri, a Palestinian-French human rights defender arrested by occupation forces in the West Bank last August and held since then without charge or trial.
“Rotten extradition law”
Don Bayne, Diab’s lawyer in Canada, thanked the country’s foreign minister Chrystia Freeland for her department’s efforts to bring his client home, but said the case raised troubling questions over how his ordeal could have happened in the first place.
“How could Canada have extradited a Canadian to France when France never, never had a case against Dr. Diab fit to go to trial?” Bayne asked, urging a top-level review of the country’s Extradition Act.
At a press conference in Ottawa the day after his return, Diab said that now “my mission is to help ensure we get rid of this rotten extradition law.”
The gross miscarriage of justice against Diab has gained attention in Canada.
Campaigners including former Liberal Party lawmaker Bob Rae and author Naomi Klein wrote Prime Minister Justin Trudeau urging him to “remedy this miscarriage of justice and bring Hassan back to his home in Canada.”
In November, award-winning author Heather Menzies, a member of the Order of Canada, wrote that “the Hassan Diab case is beginning to reek of the late 19th-century Dreyfus Affair” – the notorious persecution of a French military officer that is seen as a seminal example of modern European anti-Semitism.
“Worries that political pressure is at work, obstructing justice, have only deepened as time has yawned between the date of Diab’s extradition in 2014 and today,” Menzies wrote.
“A total of eight release orders from French judges have now been overturned at an appeal level, and the French press recently reported that Israeli officials met with the French judges on the case in September,” Menzies added. “This is why remembering the Dreyfus case is so important.”
The kind of political pressure Menzies alludes to is similar to that which appears to be keeping Georges Ibrahim Abdallah in a French prison years after he ought to have been released following a conviction on flimsy evidence and a flawed trial of complicity – which he denies – in the 1982 killings of an American and an Israeli diplomat.
French authorities may appeal again against Diab’s release, but a big difference this time is that he is back home.
The decision to finally release him was “founded on the demonstration of the impossibility to attribute to Hassan Diab any responsibility in the attack, as we have not ceased to claim,” his lawyers in France stated. “The respect owed to the victims and their legitimate need for justice must not be confused with the prosecutor’s obstinacy, whose potential appeal would be completely contrary to the law and facts.”