“Is it possible?” Ottawa professor Hassan Diab asked himself when he heard the news.
After three years and two months held in solitary confinement in a maximum security prison in a Parisian suburb, Diab – a 64-year-old Canadian – was stunned in disbelief when his lawyer finally delivered the news that he had been dreaming about for so long.
The judge had dismissed the allegations against him and had ordered for his immediate release.
He was freed on January 15.
Just to be sure that the “miracle” was real, Diab asked her to repeat and clarify the news a few times.
“If you don’t know English any more, it means we won,” she said.
After 10 years of draconian bail conditions and imprisonment, Diab is finally a free man. He arrived back home in Ottawa last week, rejoining his wife and two children, the youngest who was born in his absence.
“It’s a different world here,” Diab told Al Jazeera. “I’m trying to reintegrate back to ordinary, normal life.”
He hadn’t stepped outside for two years. For the two hours or so a day that he was brought out of his solitary confinement, he was brought 15 metres away from his cell to “a bigger cage” called “La Promenade”.
“You don’t see the sky; you just see a part of the ceiling of the cage,” Diab explained.
“It’s literally a cage. You have a chicken fence on the ceiling and a little window on the side and we were 10 people in [a space of] 20sq metres. Two square metres per person. And they called it a ‘promenade’.”
Diab, a Lebanese Canadian was wrongly labelled a “terrorist”, accused of involvement in the 1980 synagogue bombing in Paris that killed four people.
He was arrested in Canada in 2008 at the request of French authorities and placed under draconian bail conditions before his extradition to France in 2014.
However, a trial was never held. Often described by lawyers, rights groups, and media as a “Kafkaesque case”, there was never any credible evidence presented against him.
Diab’s handwriting did not match the suspect’s, nor his fingerprints, palm print or physical description.
French investigative judges repeatedly stated that there is “consistent evidence” that Diab was in Beirut, writing his exams at the time of the attack in Paris, which Diab has maintained throughout.
Despite an overwhelming evidence of his innocence, Diab was imprisoned for 1,154 days.
According to Canada’s extradition law, an individual can be extradited only when the foreign country has credible, reliable evidence to take the case to trial.
However, France never had a credible case against Diab to begin with.
Diab was extradited even though Canadian extradition judge Robert Maranger warned the evidence against him was “illogical, very problematic, convoluted, very confusing, with conclusions that are suspect”.
“The prospects of conviction in the context of a fair trial seem unlikely,” Maranger predicted.
However, as the extradition judge, Maranger only “committed” Diab for extradition.
Rob Nicholson, Canada’s justice minister at the time, held the ultimate veto for extradition.
Nicholson was the only official who had complete discretion and, despite Maranger’s warnings, he gave the green light for Diab’s extradition.
With his name finally cleared, Diab and his supporters are calling for a public inquiry and to amend the extradition law so that no other Canadian experiences the same injustice.
Canadian extradition law stipulates that Canadians can be sent for trial in other countries, but not to languish for years and years without trial, without anything, just waiting and in the end, 'Oh, sorry! It was a mistake.'
“The extradition law is above the Canadian criminal law, but it should be the other way around,” Diab said.
“What applies to Canadians here should apply to other places … we are trying to say, ‘enough is enough.’
“Canadian extradition law stipulates that Canadians can be sent for trial in other countries, but not to languish for years and years without trial without anything, just waiting and in the end, [to say] ‘Oh, sorry! It was a mistake.'”
The extradition act places a low threshold for foreign countries to request individuals and a high bar for the accused to prove their innocence. France was not even required to provide sworn testimony against Diab.
“I argue that this was not a case France was ready to try. This was an ongoing investigation,” said Diab’s Canadian lawyer, Donald Bayne.
“When the current extradition act was passed, in the discussions in parliament that led up to it, the justice minister at the time promised Canadians in parliament that this act was not to enable foreign countries to get their hands on Canadians for the purpose of detaining them for foreign investigation.
“The language he used was – no Canadians will languish in a foreign prison during a foreign investigation pursuant to an extradition. That’s exactly what happened in Dr Diab’s case. Canadian courts simply ignored that,” Bayne said.