Canadian academic Hassan Diab goes to trial next year in French terrorism case

France’s case against Ottawa academic Hassan Diab in connection with a bombing outside a Paris synagogue 40 years ago will go to trial in 2023 — more than five years after he was set free due to a lack of evidence.

Trial set for April 2023 — 5 years after Diab was set free due to lack of evidence

Hassan Diab looks for a press conference on the French Court of Appeal's decision in his case on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday, Oct. 26, 2018.
French authorities have not yet requested Hassan Diab's extradition to France to stand trial in person. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

France's case against Ottawa academic Hassan Diab in connection with a bombing outside a Paris synagogue 40 years ago will go to trial in 2023 — more than five years after he was set free due to a lack of evidence.

Last year, France's court of appeal overturned a lower court decision to release Diab and allow him to return to Canada. France's top court later rejected Diab's appeal and ordered him to stand trial. That trial is set to start on April 3, 2023. 

French authorities have not yet requested Diab's extradition to France to stand trial in person. Diab's lawyers have said he could be tried in absentia.

Diab's lawyer in France, Amélie Lefebvre, declined to comment on the latest developments. "It is way too soon to discuss them," she said in an email.

French prosecutors have persisted in their attempts to bring Diab to trial — despite problems with the physical evidence central to their case and the discovery by French investigators that Diab wasn't even in Paris on the day of the bombing, but was in Lebanon writing university exams.

Diab's supporters say France's dismissal of his alibi and the weak case against him amounts to a travesty of justice. 

A group of his supporters will hold a news conference tomorrow to demand that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speak out in Diab's defence. They want Trudeau to publicly declare that Canada will not entertain a second extradition request from France.

During Diab's most recent appeal hearing, France's advocate general — a senior officer of the law who offers advice in the French legal system — sided with Diab's defence team and argued for his release.

But Diab's release has been opposed by more than 20 civil society groups in France — including groups representing victims of terrorism and pro-Israel organizations.

Diab's Canadian lawyer Don Bayne said pressure from those groups played a role in the decision to send Diab to trial. 

"The travesty of justice continues despite clear evidence of Hassan's innocence," he said last year.

"This shows how political pressure trumps justice. We call upon Prime Minister Trudeau to put an end to this miscarriage of justice."

Accusation and extradition

The Ottawa university lecturer was accused by authorities of involvement in the 1980 Rue Copernic bombing, which killed four people and injured more than 40.

He 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.

Firemen standing by the wreckage of a car and motorcycle after a bomb attack at a Paris synagogue on October 3, 1980 that killed four people. A Canadian court ruled on June 6, 2011 to extradite accused bomber Hassan Diab to France to face prosecution, but warned the government's case was "weak" and unlikely to result in a conviction.
Firefighters standing 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)

He 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 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.

While considering the appeal of Diab's release, another French judge ordered an independent review of the contentious handwriting evidence.

Diab's lawyers said 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."

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.

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.

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

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