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Judges order dismissal of terrorism case against Ottawa academic jailed in France

Hassan Diab, the Ottawa professor imprisoned in France on terrorism charges, listens to his lawyer speak at a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on April 13, 2012.

PATRICK DOYLE/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Ottawa academic Hassan Diab has been released from a French prison after two investigating judges ordered the dismissal of terrorism charges against him, deeming that the circumstantial case against him was not strong enough to commit him to trial.

Mr. Diab left the Fleury-Mérogis penitentiary, outside Paris, with his lawyers Friday afternoon. There are no conditions to his release, said his wife, Rania Tfaily, who was able to speak to him on the phone.

Since his extradition to France three years ago, Mr. Diab has been held in pretrial solitary detention, leaving his cell for only one or two hours a day. Between his 2008 arrest in Canada and his extradition, he was out on bail but had a curfew and had to wear a monitoring device.

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"This is the first time in almost 10 years that he was able to walk without any restrictions like any other person," Ms. Tfaily said in an interview.

Mr. Diab had been charged in connection with a 1980 bombing at a Paris synagogue.

His lawyer in Paris, William Bourdon, said it is unusual for French investigating judges to rule that a terrorism case should not go to trial.

"In terrorism cases there is always a very strong, emotional pressure," Mr. Bourdon said in an interview.

Civil parties representing the victims of the terrorist bombing have indicated they plan to challenge Friday's decision, Mr. Bourdon said.

The state prosecutors can also seek to appeal.

Friday's 72-page decision was issued by Jean-Marc Herbaut and Richard Foltzer, two investigating judges in the anti-terrorism section of the High Court of Paris.

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A sociology lecturer at Carleton University and the University of Ottawa, the 64-year-old Mr. Diab was born in Lebanon and is now a citizen of Canada.

He says he was a student in Beirut at the time of the attack, on Oct. 3, 1980, when a bomb planted on a motorcycle killed four people and injured more than 40 others near a synagogue on Copernic Street.

Police connected the motorcycle to a man who used a fake Cypriot passport and had stayed at a hotel in Paris. The man was never retraced.

Nearly 19 years after the attack, investigators linked Mr. Diab to the case when they learned that his passport had been found in the possession of a member of a pro-Palestinian radical group who had been detained in Italy three days after the bombing.

In their decision, the two judges were skeptical about some of the evidence, which came from French and Israeli intelligence services, with no clear indication of their original sources.

Several university friends interrogated by the investigating judges said that at the time of the attack Mr. Diab was in Beirut studying with them for exams. He said he had lost his passport during that period.

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Photos of Mr. Diab in 1980 resembled composite sketches of a suspect but the judges noted that having long hair and a droopy mustache was a common look at the time.

Investigators also thought that Mr. Diab's handwriting was similar to that on the hotel registration card of the bogus Cypriot traveller. However, the judges took note of counter-expertise produced by Mr. Diab's Canadian lawyers that cast doubt on the French handwriting analysis.

Friday's decision by the French judges mirrored the judgment six years ago by the Ontario Superior Court. While he authorized Mr. Diab's removal to France because he was bound by Canadian extradition law, Justice Robert Maranger had criticized the evidence presented by the French government.

"The case presented by the Republic of France against Mr. Diab is a weak case; the prospects of conviction in the context of a fair trial seem unlikely," Justice Maranger wrote in his decision.

Mr. Diab, who was arrested in November, 2008, was extradited to France in November, 2014.

At the time of his extradition, he had a two-year-old daughter and his wife was seven-months pregnant with their second child.

While he was happy about the decision by the French judges, his Canadian lawyer, Donald Bayne, questioned why the Canadian judicial system put his client in such a position.

"No Canadian should be extradited on this flimsy, unreliable evidence," he said in an interview.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who met reporters after a Liberal cabinet retreat in London, Ont., Friday afternoon, was non-committal when asked about modifications to the extradition process.

"We are very pleased to see that the French court system reached that decision," he said. "As for drawing lessons [on the extradition laws], we'll have of course some reflections on that in upcoming days and months, as we always do in such situations."

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