On Jan. 12, 2018, after 1,154 days spent languishing in a prison in France, Hassan Diab, a dual Lebanese-Canadian citizen, was released without ever having faced a trial. French authorities finally concluded that there wasn’t a case against him and ordered his release. Diab addressed delegates to CAUT’s 84th Council meeting in April to tell the bizarre and disturbing story of his arrest, extradition and incarceration.
A sociology professor who’d studied in Lebanon and the United States, Diab was teaching at Carleton University in Ottawa when the RCMP arrested him in 2008. He’d discovered a year earlier he was under investigation by French authorities for the 1980 Paris synagogue bombing that killed four people, but he’d denied any connection, asserting he’d been in Lebanon at the time of the bombing.
Diab explained how his life and that of his wife, Rania, slowly unraveled after the accusations first surfaced.
“I do not recall the exact day I noticed that unknown individuals in cars with tinted windows were following me … however, such incidents started happening more frequently and I decided to call the Ottawa police to report them, but to no avail. Rania and I would be followed even inside grocery stores or while hiking, and there was an attempt to get into our home,” he told delegates.
“On Nov. 13, 2008, I was arrested by an RCMP swat team and thrown into the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre. I was initially denied bail and spent the first month in isolation, spending 23.5 hours each day in my small cell and only allowed to go to the yard for half an hour.
“Solitary confinement is very harsh, and one can truly start to lose one’s mind. After I was allowed to join the general jail population, I often had two cellmates in my small cell because of overcrowding at the detention centre. The space was so tight that one of us would have to sleep next to the toilet. The food was rationed and terrible. The air quality was horrible.”
Diab said he veered between boredom and intense fear.
“Reading materials were non-existent. Violence and bloody confrontations between inmates were frequent and extremely disturbing to witness. Every day was a struggle — to remain sane, to avoid violence, and to find a way to fill the void and emptiness.”
It is now known that intelligence from anonymous sources, obtained under unknown circumstances — possibly torture — formed the basis for the French accusations against him. Handwriting analysis matching his writing to just five block letters allegedly written by the bomber was found to be unreliable. In fact, his fingerprints clearly did not match those supposedly belonging to the bomber, but this detail was suppressed by French authorities, and never raised at his Canadian extradition hearing.
“It was on the basis of these allegations that my life and that of my family and friends were upended for the past 10 years,” Diab noted. “After five months at the Ottawa detention centre, I was granted bail under very strict conditions, which included electronic monitoring at my expense — about $1,800 per month — and was also required to not leave home unless accompanied by a surety, stay in the Ottawa area, and observe a curfew, among many other conditions.”
Diab’s wife Rania gave birth to their first child during this period, at a point when the cost of the ankle monitor became the least of their worries. His academic career ended abruptly when Carleton cancelled his contract. Diab detailed how immense legal expenses began piling up as he struggled to fight France’s extradition demand.
“My limited savings were wiped out within the first few months. If it were not for my lawyer, who worked pro bono, and the generous donations of family, friends and supporters, there was absolutely no way for me to fight these allegations. The presumption of innocence rings hollow in the face of harsh bail conditions that are imposed for years at a time.”
His legal battles were in vain, however. Canada’s Extradition Act puts the onus on the accused to prove allegations are manifestly unreliable. Despite finding that the evidence against him, including that the French handwriting analysis report, was “very problematic,” on June 6, 2011, a Canadian judge committed Diab for extradition after stating his hands were tied by the law. Then Minister of Justice Rob Nicholson signed the surrender order and all appeals failed.
Diab was held in Fleury-Mérogis Prison, a high security correctional centre in southern Paris, where he again struggled to hang on to his sanity.
“I stayed at the jail for three years and two months. The hardest part was being thousands of miles away from my family and not knowing how they were managing.” Rania gave birth to their second child during this time.
“The most disturbing element of my detention was hearing the constant banging on doors and piercing screams of other inmates. Imprisonment — even of those who are supposedly presumed innocent — is intended to punish people and strip inmates of their humanity and hope.”
Finally, after more than three years and repeated findings by investigators that Diab was indeed in Lebanon at the time of the bombing, he was released, never having faced a trial. French prosecutors have appealed that decision, and if they win, have the right under current Canadian law to request his extradition once again.
Since his return home, Diab has called for a reform of the law that turned his life upside down for a decade.
“Full disclosure of the evidence, presumption of innocence, and the duty of the state to establish the reliability of the evidence should be the basis of any new law. This is the only way to ensure we do not extradite innocent Canadians to rot alone in foreign jails away from their families and from any meaningful human interaction based on evidence that would not withstand scrutiny in Canada,” he said.
Since his address to Council delegates, information has surfaced that reveals Canadian officials may have knowingly withheld evidence that would have exonerated Diab of any wrongdoing. The government has launched an internal Department of Justice probe of the allegations, and is promising a review of Canada’s extradition law.
CAUT is calling for an independent and public inquiry into the treatment of Diab.