Delivering Community Power CUPW 2022-2023

Legalized immorality: the scapegoating of Hassan Diab

Diab was held, without charge, in a maximum-security French prison for 38 months

Canadian PoliticsHuman Rights

The fate of Dr. Hassan Diab is being determined by scapegoating and by an absolutist moral belief that law is engraved in stone. This undeveloped form of morality reduces justice to rules in which the state’s role is limited to examining compliance with the law. In Dr. Diab’s case, appeals were rejected and ultimately blamed for preventing the efficient processing of his extradition. The Canadian government refused to rule on the truthfulness of evidence and on the unlikelihood of a fair trial in France.

Last month, France convicted Dr. Diab in absentia of bombing the Rue Copernic synagogue in Paris in 1980. The trial was a cause célèbre in both countries and extensively covered by the media.

Dr. Diab is a Canadian citizen born in Lebanon. He is 69 years of age and the father of two young children. In 2007, he was working as a professor of sociology at both Carleton University and the University of Ottawa. He was not yet informed that he was accused of bombing the Rue Copernic synagogue and of belonging to a Palestinian terrorist group.

It emerged that the case hinged on suspect evidence, particularly fraudulent handwriting analysis (later dropped by court’s decision), hand and palm prints that didn’t match Dr. Diab’s, and a faded passport that had been lost. A century earlier, artillery officer Alfred Dreyfus, who was of Jewish descent, was similarly charged with treason based on fraudulent handwriting evidence. He was famously memorialized in Emile Zola’s open letter, J’Accuse…!, which excoriated the antisemitism and tyranny of the Third French Republic.

The French investigation into the bombing was reopened in 1999. At that time, Dr. Diab was secretly spied on by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. On November 8, 2008, without any knowledge of the investigation, Dr. Diab opened his door to “a forest of screaming masked men with pistols and submachine guns.” Minutes later he was in an RCMP prisoner wagon, hands shackled, and formally detained. Subsequently, he learned he was charged with the bombing. Dr. Diab was then confined in a brutal prison for 140 days where he was threatened by other inmates.

I couldn’t believe that a place like this existed in Canada… You always see blood once, twice or more times a day. The way they treat people is torture by proxy. 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 alone to a room-size 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.

At that time, Canadian Attorney General Rob Nicholson opposed Dr. Diab’s release from detention, but on April 1, 2009, Ontario Superior Court Judge Robert Maranger ordered his release on bail and under strict house arrest. He was forced to wear and pay close to $2,000 per month for a tracking device that was permanently affixed to his leg. Acting on the presumption of guilt, Dr. Diab was immediately and peremptorily dismissed from his university position despite the judge saying it was acceptable for him to teach.

Based on the presumption of guilt and actively seeking his extradition were the International Assistance Group, B’nai Brith, the Simon Wiesenthal Center (Canada and France), and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (formerly the Canadian Jewish Congress).

Based on the presumption of innocence, his cause was taken up by Amnesty International, the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the BC Civil Liberties Association, the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group, the European Group for the Study of Deviance and Social Control, Independent Jewish Voices Canada, the Jewish Faculty Network, the Canadian Labour Congress (as well as various labour unions), and in France L’Union juive française pour la paix (UJFP).

A series of appeals to close the case due to flawed evidence was rejected and the first stage of the authority to proceed was approved on January 15, 2009. Judge Maranger wrote: “The case presented by the Republic of France against Mr. Diab is a weak case; the prospects of conviction in the context of a fair trial seem unlikely. However, it matters not that I hold this view. The law is clear that in such circumstances a committal order is mandated.” Meanwhile, Attorney General Nicholson argued that the burden of “proof to extradite had been met.”

On November 13, 2014, the Supreme Court under Rosalie Abella announced it would not review any of the exculpatory evidence and approved Dr. Diab’s extradition to face terrorism charges in France. By the morning of November 15, he was incarcerated.

Dr. Diab, in an interview in 2018, recalled that he had been promised the opportunity to say goodbye to his family. On the eve of his daughter’s birthday, he was escorted in handcuffs onto an Air France flight to Paris, then in the early morning hours he was rushed to the fortress-like Fleury-Mérogis Prison on the outskirts of the capital:

The hardest part was being thousands of miles away from my family and not knowing how they were managing… The most disturbing element of my detention was hearing the constant banging on doors and piercing screams of other inmates—even of those who are supposedly presumed innocent. [Prison] is intended to punish people and strip inmates of their humanity and hope.

Dr. Diab spent over three years in Fleury-Mérogis Prison, some in solitary confinement. During that time, two French anti-terrorist investigative judges, Jean-Marc Herbaut and Richard Foltzer, determined that Dr. Diab was in Beirut at the time of the bombing. They ordered his release, which was turned down. In May 2016 a fourth French judge ordered his release. On January 12, 2018, French judges finally dismissed the charges and Dr. Diab was released. Upon his return to Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said, “”I think for Hassan Diab we have to recognize first of all that what happened to him never should have happened.”

Dr. Diab and his lawyers pressed for a review of Canada’s extradition law, and the government appointed former Deputy Attorney General for Ontario Murray Segal to conduct an external independent review. The review found no fault with the government or with the law. Donald Bayne, Dr. Diab’s lawyer, reacted to the Segal report stating, “This is basically a report that says nothing wrong was done by anybody.” The record of the case, said Bayne, was “full of misrepresentations, exaggerations, inaccuracies, omissions and editorial comments… [and] used unacceptable, unsourced intelligence [torture].”

Despite Trudeau’s words, in April 2023 it happened again. Dr. Diab was convicted in absentia of bombing the synagogue. No Canadian government representative observed the trial.

The claim by some federal officials that the “law is the law” and not subject to examination is disingenuous. To the layman it would seem that the rewriting of fundamental laws was normalized within the post-Cold War world order. Changes included virtually legalizing the use of torture to gain intelligence and the adoption of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, both championed by Michael Ignatieff, a human rights expert who was leader of the Liberal Party during Dr. Diab’s detention (Ignatieff argued that the US has a responsibility to create a “humanitarian empire” through nation-building and, if necessary, military force).

What is important to know about this absolutist interpretation of the law? In the Diab case, the International Assistance Group (IAG), housed in the Department of Justice and tasked with advising top Canadian officials, held that the “law is the law” and must be followed as-is. During the trial itself, the IAG acted on behalf of France, the requesting state, “advancing what appeared to be a weak case, allegedly withholding exculpatory evidence and making false representations to the extradition judge.” The CBC exposed IAG communications warning French authorities that the case could be thrown out because of flawed evidence. Hidden was this passage from an incriminating memo obtained by the broadcaster: “when the French efforts turned up fingerprint analysis that could have helped clear Diab, it was never shared with the defence or shown to the Canadian judge who made the extradition order.”

What is the evidence in Canada of bigotry and the scapegoating of Dr. Diab? A Freedom of Information (FOIA) request was filed by the CAUT when he was abruptly dismissed from his teaching position at Carleton University. This occurred before Dr. Diab was even formally charged and after the university president and chair of the board of governors had received this communication about a news release from B’nai Brith’s then Vice President Frank Dimant: “The conditions of Diab’s bail do not allow him to leave his home alone or to own a cell phone, but Carleton officials believe that it is fine for them to make him a member of their faculty. The last place in the world where this man belongs is a university classroom, in front of impressionable students.”

Dimant described Dr. Diab as “an alleged terrorist accused of murdering four people in cold blood just because they were Jewish and decided to worship in a synagogue.” Carleton’s provost then abruptly terminated Dr. Diab’s teaching contract, without an explanation and without consulting with the dean or chair of the sociology department. The CAUT and 30 members of the departments of sociology and anthropology at Carleton condemned Dr. Diab’s dismissal.

In 2010, Avi Benlolo, President and CEO of the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies, Shimon Samuels, director for International Relations of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and former Minister of Justice and Attorney General Irwin Cotler (reputed as a defender of human rights) spoke together at a symposium focused on the Diab case. The stated goals of the symposium were to “fight against hatred, anti-Semitism, terrorism, impunity, [and] indifference,” to bring to justice the victims of the Rue Copernic attack, and to intervene with Canadian authorities “so that the extradition procedure for Hassan Diab launched by the French Judicial Authorities can come to an end.” Benlolo, Samuels, and Cotler led a delegation that also met with French Prime Minister François Hollande to discuss Islamic terrorism and protecting the Jews of France and Syria.

In November 2014, the order was signed to extradite Dr. Diab to France. Earlier that year, Prime Minister Stephen Harper invited Jewish Defense League (JDL) member Julius Suraski, Benlolo, and Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) CEO Shimon Fogel to accompany him on his plane to Israel (the JDL is classified as a “right-wing terrorist group” by the FBI). CIJA applauded the decision to uphold the extradition order: “The fact that the main suspect in this hateful terrorist attack will indeed face the justice system gives hope to the survivors.”

How did the Simon Wiesenthal Center shift from hunting Nazis to targeting alleged Islamic terrorists? Benlolo’s website at the time boasted of his global network of close contacts including George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Shimon Peres, Tony Blair, and Rudy Guiliani. The Hill Times recognized Fogel as one of the 100 most influential actors within the political arena. Samuels, meanwhile, published articles in the National Post and Israel’s Ha’aretz, writing: “After 41 years, the families of the four dead… and forty-six wounded [in the Rue Copernic synagogue bombing] would finally receive closure.” Samuels was also in Ottawa to participate in an interparliamentary conference on antisemitism: “I walked the six blocks to room 34 of the Ottawa Federal Tribunal, to hear part of [Dr. Diab’s] extradition proceedings. Amid girls in hijab veils and pro-Palestinian militants, I went through the rigorous security.”

In his book, The End of Europe, James Kirchick uncritically reported Samuels’ dubious claim that he witnessed a crowd of several hundred people chanting “death to the Jews” while wielding bars and axes and attempting to break into the Synagogue Don Isaac Abravanel in Paris. “Shimon Samuels,” wrote Kirchick, “reported seeing Socialist Party politicians in the crowd,” while one eyewitness reported that, had it not been for members of the JDL, “the synagogue would have been destroyed with all the people trapped inside.” The only other media report of the incident stated that there were, at most, 100 peaceful protesters at the scene.

Mirroring the mistreatment of Dr. Diab, it took years for the federal government to intervene in the rendition of Maher Arar to Syria and the incarceration of child soldier Omar Khadr in Guantanamo Bay. In Canada there is an Inter-parliamentary Coalition to Combat Antisemitism but not one to combat Islamophobia (according to Statistics Canada, in 2018, the number of police-reported hate crimes targeting Muslim religions in 2021 increased 71 percent from the previous year). From 2016 to 2021, Canada witnessed the highest number of Muslims killed in targeted, hate-motivated attacks of all the G7 countries.

National security certificates, an immigration tool used to deport non-citizens suspected of terrorism, signed off by Minister of Justice Nicholson, allowed the government to use secret evidence even obtained under torture. Nicholson and Supreme Court Justice Abella permitted the withholding of documents to Parliament about Canadian military involvement in the torture of Afghan detainees.

The IAG, Murray Segal in his official report about extradition law, and Nicholson and Abella, all turned down Dr. Diab’s appeals. They concurred that the “law is the law” and approved his extradition. None addressed the incompatibility of Canadian law with French extradition policy.

At present, France refuses to extradite ten convicted terrorists to Italy or Canadian priest Johannes Rivoire, who is charged with sexually assaulting Inuit children. France also does not extradite its own citizens.

I was asked to be an expert witness in a national security certificates case and to interview the children of one of the accused. A teenage boy imagined sternly confronting the surveillance official intruding on every aspect of the family’s life and saying to him: “Who are you?”—something many of us are trying to figure out.

As for Dr. Diab, the pain of his continuing ordeal is perhaps best captured in his poem “The Trial”:

Kafka visited me
He asked how I was doing
I told him about my trial
And he told me about his
We compared notes
It pained us very much
That history keeps on repeating itself
In the archaic law of extradition
I can’t introduce evidence
That shows my innocence
But they can file handwriting reports
One after another
Even though it is not mine
They said I can change my writing
Strangely that was what they said
Of Dreyfus one hundred years ago
Did we learn anything?
Did anything change?

Judy Deutsch is a member of Independent Jewish Voices, and former president of Science for Peace. She is a psychoanalyst based in Toronto.


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