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Interview: Hassan Diab’s fight for justice

Kevin Taghabon

March 2, 2018

Hassan Diab is a former Carleton University professor of sociology. In 2014, Canada fulfilled France’s extradition request and sent Professor Diab to France. Justice Robert Maranger, who presided over Diab’s extradition hearings, agreed with previous rulings that the case against Diab was extremely weak. Nevertheless, Canada’s Extradition Act meant that Maranger had no power to keep Diab in the country. Diab would be sent over to face trial and imprisonment for a 1980 attack on a synagogue in Paris – a crime which he could not have committed. French judges investigating Diab’s case “cited evidence that indicated Mr. Diab was in Beirut during the Paris bombing.”

After a decade of fighting against both the French and Canadian states, Professor Diab was released and brought back to Canada in the early days of 2018. Since returning to Canada, Diab has recommitted himself to fighting for justice and towards the dismantling of Canada’s unfair and dangerous extradition commitments. Recently sat down with Diab for an interview.

You’re not really fading away and saying, ‘I won. I’m back home. It’s over.’ Your activism continues. You’re putting this fight forward, and I know people like Matthew Behrens are putting this fight forward with Canada’s unjust extradition laws. Why do you want to keep championing this?

Professor Diab: You don’t want to see other people [going] through what I went through. This is one thing. It’s not a selfish thing, or like ‘oh, okay, let me put everything behind [me], I don’t care about other people.’ When I got in trouble I found tons of people who were willing to help. Why shouldn’t I do the same for other people? Potential victims of injustice here and there. It’s a duty for every person here, if not every citizen. People should help each other, that’s my philosophy.

The judge in the case, the Canadian judge [Justice Maranger] spoke sort of in your favour but ruled that the law was such that he had no choice...but to extradite you to France. Can you give us a little perspective on that?

Well, you just made it clear. A Canadian judge said there is no case, or practically. There is no prospect of conviction in a fair trial. These were his words, word by word. And then, on top of this, they say, ‘well, we can do nothing. We have to ship you to another country.’ The Extradition Act is clear, saying that we can’t send Canadians to languish in foreign prisons for investigations. But this is exactly what happened to me. Three years and two months. Investigation, investigation. Finally, they said, ‘oh, sor-’. They didn’t say ‘sorry’. They said just, ‘it was wrong, and you can go home.’ Which I did.

What kind of law [is there] – extradition law that we are talking about – if they concluded here in Canada that there was no case, and then they send you away to a country that also doesn’t extradite its citizens to Canada? What kind of sovereignty [do] we have here when we prefer other countries over our country? The Canadian law is below the Extradition Act. It’s not above it. According to Canadian law, I shouldn’t be judged, even in Canada. Why should I be judged in another country if there was no case?

[This] seems to be part of a larger political conversation. Other cases like Maher Arar’s case, Omar Khadr’s case, the recent Colten Boushie ruling. All of these cases are tinged with injustice towards racialized or minority people. Do you see the fact that the state was so willing to throw you under the bus – and these people under the bus – do you think that’s part of a larger political angling?

You said it yourself. All these people who have had trouble with the justice system here, they were not from the ‘mainstream society’. They were from minorities, in one way or another. So we can draw the conclusion that there must be something here. When it comes to minorities, these minorities are less equal than others, to use George Orwell’s view. Some people are more equal than others, and in this case there are some people who are less equal than others. It could be the case. We have to fight to iron [out] the differences.

Do you see any difference between the national security regime of the Liberals now and the [prior] Conservatives?

I wasn’t here when the Liberal government was elected. I was in jail, I heard about it, little things here, little things there. I know the previous government; they did everything to extradite me. Harper’s [Conservative] government. I can’t really comment a lot on this because I just arrived. I was cut off of the whole world, and now I’m barely catching up with what happened in the last three years.

About a decade ago when there was pressure being put on the university [Carleton] where you were working at the time to push you out from teaching a summer course. A lot of the pressure on Carleton came down from B’nai Brith. Can you comment on the relationship between B’nai Brith and advocacy at universities, and if you think this targeting was political?

It’s a fact that I was dismissed a few minutes after B’nai Brith’s news conference came out. I was dismissed while I was teaching a class in the afternoon, that summer. Without even informing me they put a dismissal letter in my box. Officially I was dismissed, but practically, I was still teaching the class. They didn’t come to my class to say, ‘you are dismissed’. It was a three-hour class. They put it in the mailbox. Some teachers told me, ‘oh you’re still teaching? They have dismissed you.’ I said, ‘how come?’

There was the press conference of this organization, B’nai Brith that afternoon. Within less than two hours I was out. So obviously there was some political pressure for unknown reasons. I don’t think they represent France, or that they represent anybody here, anybody in the case. So I was out. Somehow now Carleton University is trying to fix things, and saying, ‘we would be pleased to discuss your appointment again’. I will see what will happen.

There was a large mass of people who were following your case. Why do you think it’s important for public sentiment to be on the side of people such as yourself when there is no legal recourse? Translating that into activism, what does good activism look like for people in your situation, when the legal system is insufficient?

This is where the citizens should come forward, and activists more so than regular people, when they see this injustice, and when they see a weak case, or a ‘no case’ even. Otherwise, again, we’ll be playing the game of ‘it’s not me, it’s somebody else.’ If we don’t do this, unfortunately there are many people who will think this way. ‘Oh it’s not me, it will not happen to me.’

History taught us otherwise. Stories always start with someone else. We don’t support them. We do nothing until the flood arrives at our home, and then we start screaming ‘help, help.’ This is something very essential, for people to be aware of what is going on. All injustices are connected in one way or another. When we say, ‘this is not my case, this is not my area, I don’t care about this,’ or you don’t get involved in that one, it’s a short kind of vision.

Luckily, we live in a country where people are coming more forward now [sic] and doing their best. I see in this case, thousands of people, mostly who I don’t know, who came to help, to support, to send money, to do everything. I received tons of books in the cell in France. Tons of letters from people I’ve never heard of, I’ve never known, that just said, ‘you don’t know me, but I support you’. This makes you feel good, makes you continue the struggle, and makes you stand for the just and [what is] right.

It’s France…it’s still prison. Can you tell us a little about your experience being there?

Prison is prison, anywhere in the world, as [Nelson] Mandela said. Prison is a bad thing, wherever it is. But for prisons I put it this way, because it’s a negative thing – there are bad prisons, and there are worse prisons. There are no ‘better prisons,’ as many people will try and compare.

In fact, prisons in Canada – because I spent four, five months here before my extradition there at first, when I was arrested – is much worse than the French prison. And the French prison is worse than most of the European prisons. This is just to make a comparison. You can say the French prison is really bad. It is bad. But the Canadian one is much worse. And people don’t know this. They always talk about others. They don’t see, they don’t have a mirror. They don’t look at the mirror [and ask], ‘what about us?’ I can tell you, this here is much worse than the French prison.

So practically, you are alone in a different country, a different culture. Family is not around to visit you like most [prisoners]. It aggravates the situation more than regular prisoners because nobody is around you to visit you. Family is 5000 miles away or so, 6000, I don’t know how far. They can provide you with what little support you need, basic services like washing your clothes, which other prisoners have. And you don’t speak the language. You mumble some words here and there and people don’t care much. If you want to mumble, they prefer to talk with each other. Why should I beg? Very few people speak English.

The situation becomes really…worse, to put it this way, for somebody from a different country, from a different culture, from [a] totally different setting. 22 hours alone in the cell, you have to do something. Try to read more, to write more, to paint if you can, which I started learning. Try to benefit from the time, not to give up, while at the same time keep fighting.

So what does the future hold for you?

We were talking this morning with my partner, ‘how do you feel?’ We are still, both of us, don’t feel we are in the same world we were in ten years ago when the whole case started. We are trying to help each other to stay strong and to continue this trip in life. Plus, we have little kids who are also trying to know what’s going on. You need time and patience to explain to them how things went, because they see what’s going on. They are absorbing it little by little. We are just taking it slowly, but surely. 

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