Five years after he was released from a French prison, Hassan Diab believed the saga he refers to as "the ordeal" was behind him.
But after a French court sentenced him to life in prison Friday and issued an international arrest warrant, Diab is again fearing the worst.
During an exclusive interview in an Ottawa coffee shop on Sunday, the 69-year-old academic, who was convicted in absentia of a 1980 terrorist attack on a Paris synagogue that killed four people and injured more than 40 others, said fighting the French judicial system is like "fighting ghosts," and he hopes that Canada will "do the right thing this time" if France makes a second extradition request.
"It's a scary time," said Diab, who has always maintained his innocence. "It's like we thought we reached the end of the tunnel. But no, there's a new tunnel."
It's the latest development in a long and complicated case that started when France issued its original extradition request in 2008. Evidence presented during the extradition hearing was circumstantial, relying heavily on a handwriting analysis that linked Diab to words the suspected bomber penned on a hotel registration card.
The extradition judge, Ontario Superior Court Justice Robert Maranger, described the case against Diab as "weak" and said the prospect of his conviction was unlikely in a fair trial.
However, Maranger said Canadian law was such that he could not deny extradition and he ordered Diab turned over to French authorities.
Despite appeals that went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, Diab was extradited to France, where he spent three years behind bars, awaiting trial.
He was in solitary confinement much of that time, missing the birth of his youngest son in Ottawa and the death of his father in Lebanon.
"Every day in jail is like eternity," he said, "because you don't know the day from the night. We're talking about years, with very little attention to one's health. Three years and two months. You have to rely on yourself to develop your brain and alleviate the pressure of everything around you."
His absence was especially difficult for his two younger children, now aged eight and 10. "My daughter, who's 10, is afraid all the time that they might snatch me," he said, "and the eight-year-old is clinging more and more to me, trying to hug and protect me."
In January 2018, two investigative French magistrates dismissed the allegations against Diab due to a lack of evidence and ordered his release from jail without trial. The pair — Marc Herbaut and Richard Foltzer — said they found evidence to support Diab's contention that he had been in Beirut, writing exams, at the time of the bombing. But the French court of appeal ruled in January 2021 that Diab must stand trial on the terrorism-related charges.
"It didn't occur to me for a second that they would be able to flip everything upside down and quash the investigative judges' decision based on almost nothing," Diab said.
A document outlining the French judges' recent decision is expected in the coming days, but it's not expected to clarify the reasons for conviction because much of the evidence presented came from secret intelligence sources. There is no transcript of the proceedings, Diab added.
The ordeal has cost Diab and his family dearly. He estimates he's spent more than $1 million on lawyers' fees. "We lost everything we had," he said. "Decades of savings and we had to borrow a big amount. It's like riding a taxi and the meter has been on for 15 years. I don't want to think about the total."
Diab had resumed teaching at Carleton University, but took this semester off to follow the trial.
The professor and his supporters are hopeful that Canada will not allow a second extradition.
"Six months after my return in 2018, the prime minister said what happened to me shouldn't have happened and we will make sure it never happens again. We are hoping he will honour his words, especially knowing how the trial was conducted. I hope they will do the right thing so they can save us a little bit of time to live the last few years in peace."