by Josh Lalonde
On January 27, a French court of appeal decided that the case of Canadian professor Hassan Diab — accused of involvement in the bombing of a Paris synagogue in 1980 — should go to trial. The decision overturned the 2018 ruling of a lower court dismissing the case against Diab for lack of evidence, although no new evidence has been presented.
Diab has strenuously denied any involvement in the bombing or connection to any terrorist organization ever since his initial arrest by the RCMP in 2008. After a long series of legal proceedings, Diab was extradited to France in 2014, where he was held without charge for over three years before his 2018 release and return to Canada.
The case against Diab has relied on secret intelligence and handwriting analysis that has been challenged by experts, and has also seen French investigators withhold evidence favourable to his defence. The case has raised questions about the fairness of Canada’s extradition system and the conduct of the RCMP and Department of Justice.
The Leveller spoke with Don Pratt, a founding member of the Hassan Diab Support Committee, about the latest development in the case and the issues it raises for the Canadian legal system.
The Road to Extradition
Born in Lebanon, Diab immigrated to Canada in the ’90s and became a Canadian citizen. He taught sociology at the University of Ottawa and Carleton University until he was dismissed from his position at Carleton in 2009 due to the allegations against him. He first learned of these allegations in 2007, when a reporter from the French newspaper Le Figaro approached him after one of his classes. The reporter informed him that he was the prime suspect in the 1980 bombing of the rue Copernic synagogue in Paris, which killed four people and injured 46 others.
A year after first learning of the allegations, Diab was arrested by the RCMP at France’s request, then denied bail for four months before being released under near-house arrest. During this period, he was forced to pay $2000 per month for a GPS ankle bracelet that monitored his movement, despite having lost his teaching position.
“In France, Diab was held without charge while the investigators attempted to gather evidence against him. However, far from strengthening the case, the investigation dramatically weakened it.”
After a series of delays, extradition hearings began in 2010. Under the Extradition Act, Canadians whose extradition is being sought by a foreign country have fewer protections than in a criminal trial. The country requesting extradition must simply submit what is called a record of the case, containing a summary of the evidence against the suspect. This evidence is admissible in an extradition hearing whether or not it would be admissible in a Canadian criminal proceeding, and it does not need to be sworn evidence. The country seeking extradition has no obligation to disclose evidence favourable to the defence, and the defence has no right to challenge evidence or cross-examine witnesses. Evidence introduced by the requesting country can only be excluded if it is shown to be “manifestly unreliable” — a very high standard. In general, the principle of “innocent until proven guilty” does not apply to extradition hearings.
Under these expansive rules, the French investigators and Canadian prosecutors acting on their behalf relied on two lines of evidence. The first was secret intelligence, whose nature was not disclosed to Diab’s defence, the Canadian prosecutors arguing for his extradition, or the French judge in charge of his case. Only the French investigators’ assertion that the evidence exists has ever been made public.
Given the secrecy of the alleged evidence against Diab, the possibility that it is the result of torture cannot be ruled out. A 2010 report by Human Rights Watch alleged that France, among other Western countries, was using claims extracted by torture in other countries as evidence in court.
The second line of evidence was handwriting analysis. The French investigators had found a five-word specimen of writing on a hotel registration card that they believed had been written by the bomber, and compared it to a sample of what they said was Diab’s writing. They submitted two reports by experts who concluded that Diab was likely the writer of the text on the registration card. However, the writing on the card consisted of block letters, while the writing they compared it to was cursive. Furthermore, the sample of writing said to be Diab’s contained significant differences in handwriting, which were ultimately found to have been due to the fact that it included writing by his ex-wife.
These two reports were withdrawn before the extradition hearing and a third report, which came to the same conclusion, was submitted instead. A handwriting expert who testified for the defence called this report “frankly absurd — totally misguided and totally incorrect,” as it ignored many differences between Diab’s writing and that on the registration card. The judge presiding over the extradition hearing described handwriting analysis as “pseudoscience” and called the French report “very problematic,” “very confusing,” and described it as having “suspect conclusions.” But he found that under the Extradition Act, he had no choice but to allow it as evidence.
On the basis of this secret intelligence and dubious handwriting analysis, the judge granted the extradition request, while noting that “the prospects of conviction in the context of a fair trial seem unlikely.” However, under the Extradition Act it is the Minister of Justice who has the final decision as to whether to surrender the person whose extradition is sought to the requesting country. The act requires that “the Minister shall refuse to make a surrender order if the Minister is satisfied that the surrender would be unjust or oppressive[,] having regard to all the relevant circumstances.” But the minister at the time, Rob Nicholson, chose not to exercise this power. Diab was ultimately extradited to France in 2014.
The Case Falls Apart
In France, Diab was held without charge while the investigators attempted to gather evidence against him. However, far from strengthening the case, the investigation dramatically weakened it.
The French judge presiding over the investigation found documents and witnesses in Lebanon confirming that Diab was writing his university exams there at the time of the bombing in France. On the basis of this evidence, the judge ordered Diab’s release, but this and other release orders were repeatedly overturned by an appeal court.
Furthermore, the investigation brought to light evidence exonerating Diab that the French investigators had — deliberately or mistakenly — claimed did not exist at the time of the extradition hearing. The investigators knew in 2007 — before they requested Diab’s extradition — that fingerprints found on the hotel registration card thought to have been filled in by the bomber did not match Diab’s. But they stated in their record of the case that no usable fingerprints had been found on the card.
CBC News later revealed that in 2010, during the extradition proceedings, the Canadian Department of Justice requested fingerprint samples from the French investigators and had the RCMP compare them to Diab’s. This was an attempt to bolster the case after the initial handwriting analysis reports were withdrawn. But when the RCMP concluded that the fingerprints did not match, the Department of Justice did not inform the court or Diab’s defence.
Because of this kind of assistance offered to the French extradition request, Pratt from the Hassan Diab Support Committee characterized the Canadian prosecutors as “extremely gung-ho” and as “bending over backwards” to accommodate the request.
Palm prints found in a car used in the bombing also did not match Diab’s. And witnesses’ description of the bomber as a 40 to 45-year-old man is hard to reconcile with the fact that Diab was 26 at the time.
Given this new evidence, Diab was finally, in late 2017, ordered to be released. In all, he spent three and a half years in detention in France, confined to his cell for 20 to 22 hours of the day, without even being charged, much less convicted. After his release in early 2018, he returned to Canada and began campaigning for an inquiry into his case and reform of the extradition process.
After Diab’s return, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated: “I think for Hassan Diab, we have to recognize first of all that what happened to him never should have happened,” and promised that his government would “look into exactly how this happened, and make sure that it never happens again.” Yet rather than establishing a judicial inquiry with the power to compel testimony, as Diab and his lawyer had called for, the federal government launched an “external review” led by former deputy attorney general of Ontario Murray Segal.
Because of the limited powers of the review, Diab chose not to participate and continued to call for an inquiry. The Segal review concluded in 2019 that the Department of Justice “acted in a manner that was ethical and consistent – both with the law and […] practices and policies.” Diab’s lawyer called it a “whitewash.”
In January 2020, Diab and his family sued the government of Canada, seeking a total of $90 million in damages. The lawsuit is still ongoing.
The Current Situation
At a press conference announcing the French court’s decision to send the case to trial after all, Diab’s Canadian lawyer called it a “continuation of a long odyssey of injustice.” Pratt from the Hassan Diab Support Committee stressed the “tremendous burden” — financial, physical, and psychological — that the case had imposed on Diab and his family, and called it “a kind of torture.”
With the French appellate court’s decision, Diab is in some respects back at square one. France could once again request his extradition, and the same extradition procedure, with the same low standards of evidence, would apply. When asked whether they would support Diab’s extradition, neither the Department of Justice nor Global Affairs Canada would answer. Minister of Justice David Lametti did not respond to a request for comment on the case.
It is unclear what action, if any, Trudeau’s government is willing to take to “make sure that it never happens again.”
Pratt is calling on the Canadian government to open diplomatic negotiations with France to persuade them not to request extradition again. He argues that given the “enabling role” Canada played in Diab’s legal ordeal, it has a responsibility to help him now. He noted however that the Support Committee were “not holding their breath” for a response.
In the meantime, Diab’s French lawyers are appealing the decision to the French Supreme Court.
The Hassan Diab Support Committee is preparing a letter-writing campaign and a parliamentary petition calling on the government to support Diab. They also ask supporters to write letters to newspapers about the case to keep it in the public eye.