Middle East studies in the News
Hassan Diab's Letters From Prison
by Chris Cobb
For the past six years, Hassan Diab has lived under a cloud of suspicion.
For the past six months, he's continued to protest his innocence and fight for his liberty far from his home and family.
The 61-year-old Ottawa academic is in Fleury-Mérogis Prison on the outskirts of Paris — the largest in Europe — awaiting trial on murder and attempted murder charges stemming from the 1980 bombing outside a synagogue in the French capital.
Canada extradited him to France last November, less than 24 hours after the Supreme Court of Canada refused to hear his appeal.
The Lebanese-born Canadian citizen has been charged with premeditated murder, attempted murder and destruction of goods in the bombing, which killed four passersby and injured 46 others. French police allege he was part of the Palestinian terrorist group that planted the bomb in motorcycle saddlebags. Had it not been for a delay during a ceremony inside the synagogue, many children would have been on the street when the bomb exploded.
Diab denies he was in France at the time of the bombing and says he is a victim of mistaken identity.
More broadly, his case has exposed what many legal experts say is an extradition law that falls significantly below the acceptable standards of Canadian law and allows Canadian citizens to be removed from this country on relatively scant evidence from foreign governments.
And in some instances those countries —France included — do not extradite their own citizens.
The extradition judge in Diab's case noted that French evidence against Diab is "weak, convoluted and confusing" and if he were tried in a Canadian court, there would be little chance of him being convicted.
French prosecutors continue to investigate Diab's alleged role in the bombing but his Paris lawyer expects no new evidence and that the crux of their case will be based on unsourced intelligence that was withdrawn by Canadian prosecutors at his extradition hearing because they couldn't show that it had not been gleaned from torture.
Diab is being held in a special unit for high-profile, at-risk inmates, including former police officers and prison guards, and at least one celebrity prisoner Christophe Rocancourt, aka Counterfeit Rockefeller, who swindled millions of dollars from the wealthy around the world (and has since been released on bail).
Diab has been denied bail.
This week, for the first time since he was delivered to French authorities, Diab was able to see his wife, Rania Tfaily, and their children, Jena, 2, and four-month-old Jad. (Diab has two other children — 19-year-old Maya, an American living in the U.S., and 14-year-old Scotland-born Jude who has visited his father in Paris — the first time they have seen each other in more than six years.)
Diab met Tfaily and the children in a small visitors' room, for an hour on Thursday.
For much of the visit, Tfaily says, Diab played with his daughter.
"Jena loves attention," says Tfaily, "and she is the No. 1 person in the world he adores. I was worried about her reaction because it has been almost six months. But it was like he had never left. They played silly games. When the guards came she was distracted and they took him away."
Diab, she said, "looked OK" but was much thinner than when he left Canada.
During the past six months, he has had to content himself with letters and phone calls home as he awaits a trial that is unlikely to happen before the middle of next year.
The following are excerpts from 20 letters Diab has written since arriving in Paris on Nov. 17 up to mid-April, grouped loosely by subject, but not necessarily in chronological order. Together, they offer a glimpse into his life now, from mundane details of the daily routine behind bars to the heartache at missing important domestic moments.
Although confined to his cell for about 20 hours a day, he often describes conditions at the French prison as being preferable to the Ottawa Carleton Detention Centre (OCDC).
The cell is less worse than at OCDC. I have my own (!) TV though the programmes are in French only. There's a corner in the cell, which consists of a shower and toilet. I have a sink, cupboards and a desk with a mini single bed (plastic mattress and a triangular pillow). There is one window I can open to get fresh air. I spent the first night in a regular wing only to be upgraded four floors.
Unlike the OCDC, there is no uniform for inmates but only the guards are allowed to wear blue. Blacks and other minorities — Arab mostly — are close to 50 per cent of all guards. According to what I've been told, the Afro-Arab percentage of inmates is very high. But prison is a prison no matter how you look at it, as Nelson Mandela once said … there are only oppressive and more oppressive prisons.
Food is coming now at any minute (dinner @ 5:30 p.m.). We eat it in our cells. Other non-VIP inmates are much less restricted than us. They can go out alone or with others in the hallway.
Generally the guards are less worse than their Canadian counterparts. I haven't witnessed any maltreatment so far. I can't go out to play football (soccer) but I can watch the kids playing from my window.
I saw one detainee getting angry at a guard because the guard didn't say please when he asked him to leave his cell. I was also shocked at their smiles and friendships with some detainees.
They took us to another wing on the same floor to do the morning promenade. No reason was provided. The guard laughed and said 'there is nothing wrong with your original terrace so we brought you here.' The guys translated for me. They laughed too.
Visitations are inside small cabins like rooms with guards outside the door. At least I can hug you all.
On conveniences, and inconveniences
Prisoners are allowed to rent TVs and fridges at a modest cost and Diab says he has been watching TV to improve his French and watching English Premier League and other European football. Shortly after arriving at the prison, he signed up for French and Spanish lessons and, later, English classes.
'I am afraid I'll be a TV addict. However, I rarely pay attention because everything's in French. Maybe after taking a French course I will be an addict.
As you can guess we haven't been able to watch any other news on TV except what happened last week (the terrorist attack on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo). It brings so much the memory of 9-11 back to memory, esp. the aftermath of the attack. The future doesn't look any more promising, if not very dark. Every time you entertain the idea of finally reason prevailing, you get disappointed. At the end, only innocents pay.
Although Diab expresses relief at not seeing or hearing the inmate violence he says he experienced at the OCDC, he refers often to shouting and screaming that pierces the night. He is especially irritated by a group of people in a nearby cell. Inmates within earshot refer to them as the 'transvestites' although it isn't clear whether they are.
The inmates screaming and yelling most of the day and night is a major problem for those who want to read, sleep etc. Better than total silence at nights at OCDC and the heavy loads of violence.
I watched some football and slept early, 9:30 p.m. but the transvestites' noise and ritual celebration every night woke me up around midnight. I screamed and shouted back, which they enjoyed like crazy dogs. So I gave up.
I was hoping and wishing every hour that we get rid of these noisy transvestites. God must have heard me because he sent two more in addition to the five we have. So we have to deal seven now. God will rest on the eighth day (he he he).'
Screaming and banging on the cells on the lower floors has just started, for unknown reasons.
My 3rd floor neighbor below decided to play loud music till close to 1 a.m. I protested by tapping on my floor — his ceiling. I tapped the floor hard at 7 a.m. to revenge. I hate to do it but weeks of late night noise.
On some of his fellow prisoners
Diab says his own, every-changing circle in the special unit has been a source of good company both as chess partners — he has taught several to play — and at exercise periods. He rarely refers to their crimes, or alleged crimes, just their comings and goings.
Christophe (Rocancourt) insisted again today to give me half of a big portion of food that he'd received from the outside for Christmas. They allow that only on Xmas. He is a really nice guy and the only one who has helped me a lot so far – with new clothes and shoes he gave me. The others are not bad but he's the best among them.
(Fellow inmate) Andre received a transfer to another prison. He might spend four months before he gets early release due to his heath and age. Andre is 72. He served one year and days out of eight years. It's good news but I wonder how much when his health is not good. Maybe better than good health and a long time in jail.
We have a new member of the group — Andre, same name as the gynecologist who left two weeks ago. He looks like a teacher — white, educated unlike 90 per cent of the inmates.
On how his case is progressing
Diab's Paris lawyer Stephane Bonifassi told the Citizen in early April that hope — initially for bail — was keeping Diab's spirits relatively bouyant.
It's the third month anniversary in the Paris prison. It looks like eternity. However I feel stronger than when I first arrived … they are manipulating anything they feel helpful to make a less than flimsy case. I'm sure by now they know they are fishing in the wrong pond. I forgot to mention negative results of three fingerprint reports — one copy of fingerprints came from U.S. immigration; another from RCMP and a third from Paris upon my arrival. A fourth copy they took from me 10 days ago, which they haven't provided us with results. So happy anniversary!
Shortly afterwards, he got more good news in the form of a fourth set of negative results — against whatever French authorities were attempting to match.
The fingerprint testing results (fourth set) came back negative which means there was no tampering. The guys around me asked 'why are they keeping you here after the negative results?' I said ask Kafka. I hope reason will visit the minds of those in control.
By mid-March, a judge rejected his bail application and he was preparing to appeal.
My head is loaded with the stuff I have been reading for days. I saw the lawyer and gave him all materials that I prepared. He updated me about the bail situation. We had received (Judge Marc) Trevidic rejection a few days earlier. We have 10 days to appeal the decision, then they have 15 day to set an appeal date. Stephane says the judge's only card is intel and he relies on it. I hope I supplied Stephane with enough contradictory intel to strengthen his legal point.
Today has been just good. I forgot to put stamps on today's letter. The guard brought it back to me. Luckily he waited for me to stick stamps. Sorry for nagging about a lack of letters. I was just in a bluesy mood. We had all unpleasant news from the judge though we had no shred of doubt about expected outcomes … the final say is with the Court of Appeal. I put in a written request to use a prison computer to read legal files.
I received the official (written) bail rejection today. I felt like the judge didn't care to deal with our points.
Stephane informed me about the April 3rd (bail) appeal hearing. They wanted me to participate by video but I believe, as Stephane, that we should appeal this thing and it's important that judges see me in person.
Guard just came to officially inform me of Friday April 3rd appointment . . it'll be a teleconference (video) and not in person.
I'm concerned about Friday's (appeal). I don't have any significant knowledge about the procedure. I don't know what to do to impose our chance of a positive outcome.
(April 3) Hope today's outcome will open a new era of success — only success! Mentally I just can't think of anything but a positive outcome. What a torture session.
4:38 p.m. Another dashed hope though we had strong suspicions. I shouldn't write any more in this mood.
(April 4) Back to the ditch! At least I was very rational (at the bail appeal). I lashed out with facts only but to no avail.
(April 5) I feel as if I deserted the pen. I was unable to manoeuvre around the right feelings and write about superficial stuff or something doesn't reflect what I felt after the anticipated shameful decision Friday. I'm in pain not just for myself but for my loved ones, for all friends and supporters who anticipated justice. I'll stop here. It's nice weather after days of wind, clouds and drizzly rain.
(April 6) I'm trying to get out of this abyss. Problem is you can't express your feelings and opinion without thinking of potential repercussions or misinterpretations.
(April 13) I got the (written) bail appeal decision today. It was 13-14 pages with little over half a page (about the decision) while the rest was a repetition of false allegations. I still can't believe this. There is nothing in the decision to respond to what we raised in our request. I can see nothing but a horrible outcome.
The lighter side
While clearly preoccupied with his legal predicament, the letters are not all doom and gloom. Humour, albeit mostly wry, punctuates some of the correspondence.
Let me confess to something silly I did lately (finished it last night). I tried to fix my hair with my own tools that created some holes here and there in my hair. Well Chris (Rocancourt) offered an idea. I followed his suggestion and ordered an electric shaving machine (like a clipper) from the guards to fix the problem. I tried but failed miserably to fix it. Rather I messed it up further. They have no barber like at OCDC. So I spent so much time shaving and shaving until I saw my head's skin for the first time ever in my life (that I can remember). I hope my hair will pick up from the zero option. Stupid me! I'm bald now. I look at the positive side: no more combing … no hair cream to fix hair (gel); no worries lice or fleas; the negative side: cold head with no hat … Another negative thing is I look like a dork!
I received yesterday pigeon shit in my jacket's pocket while walking in the promenade area. Luckily I noticed it falling and cleaned it before putting my hand in my pocket. Am I lucky or not?
I did sport in the cell following the 7 a.m. morning program on TV. Then had a soft breakfast of an apple and a cup of milk with honey. I'm losing more of my belly but I could still be a belly dancer!
On his family
All Diab's letters reference his family, including his 14-year-old son Jude, who visited him in early January with his mother, Sue.
I'm happy to just hold my bulbul (a nightingale in Arabic — a term of endearment Diab uses for his sons) after so long. I will not be able to speak because of overwhelming emotion.
He's sweeter than anything. He sat quietly. I couldn't have enough of him. The 30 minutes just flew by. It felt like two minutes.
I was overwhelmed by my big, tall bulbul. I was impressed by everything he represented and showed. He was a bit shy and then became more interactive. I encouraged him to contact his big sister Maya. I asked him to Skype you. I gave him, for his coming birthday, a card that I drew of some coloured birds flying towards the sun. I have to stop writing or my tears will blind me. Let me change the subject.
The letters are especially full of talk about his two-year-old daughter Jena, for whom he was primary caregiver — and prior to his son's birth in January, also reveal concern over his wife's pregnancy.
More than anything, I was sad for not being with my lovely daughter on her birthday. I cry for just remembering her missed birthday. I miss you too but I prevent myself from thinking anything so I don't lose my composure. I need to stay strong to face all the ludicrous allegations.
Your pregnancy and birth is giving me my only concern and sometimes worry. I hope all will go OK. I can say 'congratulations' because this letter might be the last before your delivery.
After several weeks of attempting to telephone Ottawa — he was dialling one too many digits — Diab connected and subsequently laments his inability to resist phoning.
I was extremely happy to hear your voices. I get tears out of my eyes every time I imagine Jena doing this and that. It hurts when I read all her questions and requests for me to go back. I hoped she'd adapt a little more because it's hard on everyone to see her in such conditions. At least I was happy to know she is full of beans.
I tried your line (again) but in vain. I keep telling myself not to bother but I find myself without resistance when I see a phone. I hope you don't mind the 'boring' and repetitive subjects.
I can't stop thinking of you. Is there a way to stop it because it hurts? I know the case will come to a standstill when it runs out of gas. Life is fair, after all. I love you all with no conditions.
About Hassan Diab
Profession: Academic. Taught at the University of Ottawa and Carleton University. He holds a PhD in sociology.
Surveillance: By persons unknown for an undetermined period in 2008. Diab reported them to Ottawa police. Surveillance was by RCMP. It continued.
Arrested: Nov. 13, 2008 by the RCMP at the request of French authorities who asked for his extradition.
Why: Suspicion of being involved in fatal bombing at Rue Copernic synagogue in Paris, October 1980.
Bailed: After almost five months at Ottawa Carleton Detention Centre.
Conditions: Five sureties posted $250,000 plus GPS ankle bracelet costing Diab $2,000 a month.
June 2011: Ontario Superior Court Justice Robert Maranger orders Diab extradited.
April 2012: Federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson signs an order surrendering Diab to France.
February 2013: Diab's lawyer, Donald Bayne, appeals decision to Ontario Court of Appeal.
May 2014: The appeal is rejected.
Nov. 14, 2014: Supreme Court of Canada refuses to hear the case.
Nov. 15, 2014: Diab extradited.
Charges: First-degree murder, attempted murder, destruction of property.
Evidence: Diab is extradited on the basis of handwriting analysis that Maranger described as "very confusing, convoluted and suspect." The judge doubted it would produce a conviction in a Canadian court but the low threshold of evidence required under extradition law left him no choice.
Other evidence: Unsourced intelligence which was withdrawn by federal prosecutors because it could have been gleaned from torture and fell way below Canadian legal standards.
French case against Diab: Will include that intelligence and handwriting analysis.
Expected trial date: Spring-early summer 2016.
Quote: "My life has been turned upside down because of unfounded allegations and suspicions. I am innocent of the accusations against me. I have never engaged in terrorism. I have never participated in any terrorist attacks. I am not an anti-Semite." – Hassan DiabNote: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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