Hassan Diab: The case against the Ottawa professor suspected of 1980 Paris synagouge blast
November 22, 2008
Hassan Diab: The French connection
French authorities pieced together handwriting samples, police sketches and passport records to build a case against Ottawa university professor Hassan Naim Diab for bombing a Paris synagogue in 1980, according to documents made public yesterday. After receiving assurances from the Directorate of Territorial Surveillance (DTS) that it had "clear information" Mr. Diab had a major role in the attack, French police reinterviewed witnesses and matched Mr. Diab's handwriting with that of the bomber.
They eventually tracked him to Hull, where he was arrested last week at the request of French authorities. The Lebanese-born Canadian is accused of parking a bomb-laden motorcycle outside the synagogue on Paris' Rue Copernic, killing three Frenchmen and an Israeli woman. Mr. Diab has denied the allegations through his lawyer, who says he wasn't even in France at the time. Colleagues have expressed disbelief.
Until yesterday, the French case against Mr. Diab was in a file sealed from public view, but yesterday the file was opened by order of a Canadian judge. The case has four main points: - Mr. Diab resembles police sketches of the bomber; - His handwriting matches that of the bomber; - He is identified by intelligence sources and former friends as having been a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine; - His passport was used to get into France around the time of the 1980 bombing, in suspicious circumstances.
The declaration outlining the case says investigators worked back from the scene of the crime to find the dealer who sold the bomber the Suzuki motorcycle whose saddlebags would contain the explosives to the Hotel Celtic, where he stayed in Paris, and the prostitute who visited him there. (She apparently didn't offer much information, but did tell police he smoked Marlboros, pretended to be Greek, was circumcised, looked as though he normally wore glasses, and paid with a hundred-dollar bill.) He was staying under the name Alexander Panadriyu, which police eventually concluded was a false identity.
As they closed in, decades after the bombing, French police say they had two experts compare the writing on "Panadriyu's" check-in file with a sample of Mr. Diab's handwriting, gleaned from documents when he was a student at Syracuse University years later. One expert said the writing was definitely Mr. Diab's, though he had tried to change it. The other expert said Mr. Diab could have been the writer. Further, French authorities argue, Mr. Diab resembles police sketches based on interviews with witnesses to the attack, merchants who sold goods used in the attack and those who dealt with a man using the Panadriyu passport in Paris.
Three police officers were among those who helped develop sketches of "Panadriyu." They questioned and released a man using that passport in the theft of wire-cutters from a store six days before the Copernic bombing. A man French police identified as an ex-member of the PFLP, Youcef El Khalil, a close university friend of Mr. Diab's, would later tell them he thought the sketches resembled Mr. Diab when they were published in the Paris-Match newspaper three weeks after the attack. They looked so much like his friend, French police said, that Mr. El Khalil felt compelled to talk about the attack with Mr. Diab when they met that year in Beirut, discussing how such attacks hurt their cause and portrayed the PFLP poorly in the media. However, Mr. El Khalil told authorities, he did not ask Mr. Diab if he had been involved in the attack or had been in France at that time because he "did not want to involve myself."
Mr. El Khalil had identified Mr. Diab and others as members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine during questioning in 1988. But when asked specifically about Mr. Diab in 2008, he said Mr. Diab had been critical of the PFLP since 1979, saying it had failed on the issue of democracy, and was less enthusiastic about the organization than most of its members. At the time of the synagogue bombing, French authorities say there was a schism between the PFLP's main wing and the PFLP-SO -- its special forces. The SO was run by a man named Salim Abou Salem, who was responsible for all PFLP activities outside Lebanon. Among other people, he worked with alleged PFLP-SO agent Wadi Haddad, who Mr. El Khalil said under questioning had committed terrorist attacks.
On Oct. 8, 1981, one of Mr. Abou Salem's relatives, travelling under the name Ahmed Ben Mohammed, was detained by Italian authorities after they found him carrying Mr. Diab's passport, according to the DTS. He was later released with the extra passport. Lebanese authorities confirmed the Diab passport was authentic after seeing photocopies of its pages. A copy of the passport was shared with the French authorities, who found it to have valid entry stamps into France that would have given Mr. Diab an opportunity to commit the attack.
French authorities argue that since the passport they seized had Mr. Diab's photo still intact, it must have been Mr. Diab who used it to gain entry into France. The French submission said Mr. Diab asked for a new passport in Lebanon on May 17, 1983, saying he had lost his old one in April 1981 while travelling home from university. He is reported to have told the Lebanese government that he had not asked for a new passport for those two years because he was busy with exams.
The French authorities, though, suggest that Mr. Diab not only committed the Paris bombing, but was also responsible for a second bombing on Oct. 20, 1981, of a synagogue in Antwerp, Belgium. This was why his passport was being moved through Italy, according to French authorities: it was being brought to him in Spain. He delayed reporting his "lost" passport, they say, because it wasn't lost and he was still using it.
Much of the French case is dependent on information obtained from the DTS and exchanges with other countries' intelligence services. As such, much of the evidence is not detailed in the submission, relying instead on assurances from the DTS that the agency had received "clear information" that Hassan Diab, born Nov. 20, 1953, in Beirut and a resident of Ottawa, had a major role in the Copernic attack, including making the bomb and fastening it to the motorcycle. They further say that they were made aware that some of the people involved in the Copernic attack were also involved in the attack in Antwerp.
It was this intelligence information that led the French police to build a case against Mr. Diab. A Canadian court will eventually decide whether the evidence is strong enough to send Mr. Diab to France for trial on charges of murder, attempted murder and wilful destruction of property. For now, though, it will only decide whether he can be freed on bail while the extradition process proceeds.
Yesterday, Mr. Diab spoke publicly for the first time since his arrest. A slight figure, with close-cropped dark hair and a Lebanese accent, he marked his 55th birthday being led to an Ottawa courtroom witness stand in shackles to testify on his own behalf. He spoke confidently for almost four hours about his academic career, broken marriages, two grown children and world travels. He became visibly agitated, however, describing how he sublet a Booth Street apartment in Hull in late August to escape what he called an "intimidation process" in which strange black cars with tinted windows and Quebec licence plates tailed him and his common-law partner around Ottawa for much of the past year. He said he rented the Hull apartment to reduce the stress the incidents were causing his partner, Rania Pfaily, who lives in a condominium they share on Ottawa's Dynes Road.
On one occasion, he said, Ms. Pfaily confronted a man who was trying to open the condo's door. He said the man turned away, mumbling about "old age and (being) mistaken," but that he soon spotted the man in a car parked outside the building, talking with men in a second vehicle. Other times, he said, he would park his car at one of his residences and travel by bicycle in an attempt to elude his followers. Mr. Diab said he reported the incidents and licence plate numbers to Ottawa police, but nothing ever came of it.
His lawyer, René Duval, believes undercover RCMP officers were responsible. Under sometimes intense cross-examination by assistant Crown attorney Claude LeFrançois, Mr. Diab recounted bits and pieces of life in his native Beirut, two failed marriages and decades of extensive travel in the Middle East, Europe and North America, much of it in pursuit of teaching jobs at various universities. Until his arrest last week, he was a part-time sociology professor at the University of Ottawa and Carleton University.
By law, Mr. LeFrançois was prohibited from asking Mr. Diab questions dealing directly with the evidence against him. The hearing continues today.