Years after he was freed, a French court decides today whether Hassan Diab goes on trial in terrorism case

France’s court of appeal will decide today whether Canadian academic Hassan Diab goes on trial in connection with a 40-year-old bombing attack outside a Paris synagogue — three years after a lower court set him free due to a lack of evidence.

Diab, a 67-year-old Ottawa university lecturer, was accused by authorities of involvement in the 1980 Rue Copernic bombing, which killed four people and injured more than 40.

Diab was arrested by the RCMP in November 2008 and placed under strict bail conditions until he was extradited to France in 2014. He spent more than three years in prison in France before the case against him collapsed.

“My life has been turned upside down because of unfounded allegations and suspicions. I am innocent of the accusations against me,” Diab said in a media statement. “I have never participated in any terrorist attacks. I am not an anti-Semite.”

Diab was released in January 2018 after two French judges ruled the evidence against him wasn’t strong enough to take to trial. He was never formally charged.

French prosecutors appealed Diab’s release promptly — pursuing it long after the last remaining piece of physical evidence linking Diab to the bombing had been discredited by France’s own experts.

The case moved slowly as prosecutors sought to find new evidence against Diab, and as court proceedings were delayed by the pandemic.

Discredited evidence

The key physical evidence Canada relied on in extraditing Diab to France was handwriting analysis linking Diab’s handwriting to that of the suspected bomber. Canadian government lawyers acting on France’s behalf called it a “smoking gun” in the extradition hearing.

But in 2009, Diab’s legal team produced contrary reports from four international handwriting experts. These experts questioned the methods and conclusions of the French experts. They also proved that some of the handwriting samples used by the French analysts belonged not to Diab but to his ex-wife.

French investigative judges dismissed the handwriting evidence as unreliable when they ordered Diab’s release in January 2018.

But while considering the appeal of Diab’s release, another judge ordered an independent review of the contentious handwriting evidence.

Diab’s lawyers say this latest review delivered “a scathing critique and rebuke” of the original handwriting analysis “that mirror[s] the critique by the defence during the extradition hearing 10 years ago.”

‘A weak case’

Even the Canadian judge who ordered Diab’s extradition described the case against him as “weak” and said “the prospects of conviction in the context of a fair trial seem unlikely.”

The French investigative judges who released Diab also found he had an alibi for the day of the Paris bombing. Using university records and interviews with Diab’s classmates, the investigative judges determined he was “probably in Lebanon” writing exams when the bombing outside the synagogue took place.

“It is likely that Hassan Diab was in Lebanon during September and October 1980 … and it is therefore unlikely that he is the man … who then laid the bomb on Rue Copernic on October 3rd, 1980,” they wrote.

Firemen stand by the wreckage of a car and motorcycle after a bomb attack at a Paris synagogue on October 3, 1980 that killed four people. (AFP/Getty Images)

In 2018, CBC News confirmed that France was aware of — and had failed to disclose — fingerprint evidence that ended up playing a critical role in Diab’s release.

When Diab was finally released from a French prison in 2018, French judges cited the absence of matching fingerprints on a hotel form — and on any of the other evidence presented by France — as “unquestionably an essential element of discharge.”

French officials did not share fingerprint comparison evidence in their possession with their Canadian counterparts. Court documents show that, in fact, French prosecutors denied the evidence even existed.

Diab seeking $90 million from federal government

Since his release, Diab has been living with his wife and two children. He has resumed work as a part-time lecturer.

Diab filed a statement of claim last year seeking $90 million from the federal government over the role Canada played in his extradition to France.

Central to that statement of claim is the fact that — as CBC News first reported in 2018 — Department of Justice lawyers helped France strengthen its evidence when the case against Diab appeared to be falling apart.

A government-ordered review of Diab’s case by former deputy attorney general of Ontario Murray Segal concluded that government lawyers acted ethically and followed proper procedures in extraditing Diab to France.

Diab accused the federal government of perpetrating a “whitewash” by hiring Segal to perform the review instead of appointing a judge to hold a public inquiry with full power to subpoena evidence and cross-examine witnesses.

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