Hassan Diab left his cell at Fleury-Mérogis prison in Paris last Friday to the enthusiastic noise of his fellow inmates chanting, “Hassan est libre. Hassan est libre.”
These fourth-floor block mates had been a rotating mix of “special cases” — prisoners such as ex-police officers, ex-prison guards, gay inmates, pedophiles and others considered too vulnerable to be in the general population.
Depending on the mood of the guards, departing prisoners are typically allowed to say personal goodbyes to those left behind. The guards were not in a good mood on Friday.
“I had to shout to one prisoner from behind a door: ‘Tell them all I’m leaving’ and suddenly the whole floor erupted. The message spread like crazy,” said Diab during an exclusive interview at his Ottawa home on Tuesday.
The 64-year-old former University of Ottawa and Carleton University professor walked out of the prison shortly afterward in a surreal state. France had dropped terrorism charges against him. That’s what his lawyer had told him on the phone.
He had asked her several times to repeat the news.
“If you don’t know English any more, it means we won,” she responded.
It was 9:30 a.m. and Diab decided to prepare for his release. He skipped the two-hour morning exercise routine and the daily abuse poured down on them by 14 to 18 year olds in the minors’ block above.
“It was their sport to curse us for the two hours,” said Diab. “There were no French words — just horrible curse words that were explained to me. I hope to soon forget them.”
He packed a few possessions, ripped at a T-shirt to fashion a tie to wrap around the books he wanted to bring home and waited in his cell until the chief guard arrived and with no enthusiasm asked, “Are you ready?”
For the first time in almost 10 years, Diab was a free man.
Diab had been indicted on murder, attempted murder and other charges related to an October 1980 bombing outside a Paris synagogue that killed four passersby and injured dozens more.
In a detailed judgment, the chief investigating judge ruled there was no case against Diab, that the evidence against him was flawed, and there was consistent evidence that he was in Beirut when the blast happened.
After two days of whirlwind bureaucratic activity, Diab arrived in Ottawa via Iceland early Monday. His departure from France was rapid and co-ordinated by the Canadian embassy in Paris with the blessing of French authorities.
Back home after three years and two months in pre-detention trial, the Lebanon-born Canadian citizen left almost 40 pounds of body weight behind in Paris. He is a gaunt version of the man Canada handed over to France in November 2014.
Prison, and the prospect of spending the rest of his life there, was tough, said Diab.
“What drove me to keep going was my family and my supporters,” he said. “They kept sending me books and signed postcards with messages — ‘hang in there, we will not let you down’ and, ‘We will bring you back.’
“I put so much pressure on myself not to think of holding my kids and being in this house or in Canada again. But when I was sleeping I always saw them. I was concerned that (my wife) would have to take the entire burden alone. But she always said that this (having children) ‘was the best thing we did, so even if I have to stay alone I will take care of them.’
“So, I knew that if I never came back they would be well cared for.”
Diab said his immediate goal is to reconnect with his family: wife Rania Tfaily and their toddlers, five-year-old Jena and three-year-old Jad, who was born two months after Diab was extradited.
“I feel so wonderful,” he said. “Just watching the kids as they were sleeping and being with them … with Jad it was like I have been here every day. Almost from the first moment he was climbing on my back.”
The joy is tempered somewhat by legal uncertainty raised by appeals lodged against his release by prosecutors and members of the synagogue.
There is apparently no precedent for a French investigative judge’s ruling to be successfully appealed, partly because the appeals have always been lodged by defendants, not prosecutors.
Best case for Diab is a denial of the appeals; the worst is that the appeals are successful and France demands his return or, alternatively, tries him in absentia.
“I am not totally out of the woods,” he admitted. “It is at the back of my mind. I am not in control of my own destiny.”
Aside from re-connecting with his family and learning to live normally again after three years of solitary confinement in a cell the size of a small kitchen, Diab said he is determined to do all he can to bring changes to the law that allowed Canada to extradite him despite the Canadian extradition judge lamenting that the evidence was weak.
BACKGROUND: French courts drop terror allegations against Ottawa prof Hassan Diab
“My number 1 mission is to get rid of the extradition law,” he said. “It is unknown to most Canadians, including members of Parliament. It is a lousy law that allows the country to ship you (Canadian citizens) to another country.”
Diab lost his job at Carleton University shortly after his arrest in 2008 and hasn’t been able to work since.
During his six years of house arrest before he was extradited, he was forced to wear — and pay for — a $2,000-a-month GPS ankle bracelet.
Diab said he hasn’t calculated how much the decade has cost him, partly because he has no idea of the costs incurred while he was in prison.
“Family and friends kept paying and said, ‘Don’t worry.’ I don’t know how much they paid for lawyers because they won’t tell me. They said, ‘Just focus on how to defend yourself.’”
Under French law, prisoners released without trial are entitled to compensation for every day spent in prison, with reimbursement of legal expenses and other costs.
That money will only come if the appeals are unsuccessful, but Diab said he doesn’t want any of it.
“If I get any money none of it will go to my own pocket,” he said. “I will try to pay back those people who helped pay for my legal fees, the GPS and everything else. I don’t want money myself and would not take a penny but I would like to pay back these people who supported me.”
Diab and his lawyer Don Bayne said they have yet to have a conversation about the possibility of compensation from the Canadian government.
“There is still an appeal and still a process to go through,” Bayne said on Tuesday. “It’s so early to get our heads around where we are. It is an odd kind of limbo we’re in. This is a novel situation, and because of that novelty there is no current plan whatsoever to seek money from Canadian government and Canadian taxpayers.”
Diab said he is grateful for the help he received from the federal government and said two staff members at the Canadian embassy in Paris were “wonderful.”
“One came with me all the way to Ottawa and without her I don’t think I would have made it home,” he said. “(In Iceland) they didn’t understand the temporary passport so she intervened and explained it to them.”
As Diab begins his long re-adjustment, he doubts he will ever be able to put the experiences of the past decade totally behind him.
“Questions will always be asked,” he said. “It took away 10 years of our life, and the lives of our families and supporters. It is not just about me.”