Zeinab Merai, Sada al-Mashrek
“One of the things that still amaze me is that somebody can spend over three years essentially in solitary confinement in a French prison and come back, well, angry certainly, but really with his resilience and his humour still intact. The ability of the human mind to protect itself is amazing,” affirms Former Amnesty International Canada Director Roger Clark while discussing Dr Hassan Diab’s case with Sada al-Mashrek.
What’s Diab’s family-life like?
“Hassan’s home life has been quite impressive since he came back. He’s reintegrated into that family situation, and Rania’s very devoted to the family… Two years ago they moved into a small house with a garden. Hassan has always been a person who likes walking in the countryside, gardening and cooking. He takes the kids swimming regularly and looks after them. He’s very much a home person in that respect, a person of extraordinary resilience and humour,” says Clark.
The family have remained in touch with their relatives in Lebanon and the US. And when Diab was in prison, his wife, Dr Rania Tfaily, travelled to Paris with the children to see him.
However, when Diab returned to Canada from France, "he didn’t fly on any of the regular airlines that would be diverted to the US because of a no-fly list; instead, he flew on an Iceland air flight,” explains Clark, who was born and raised in Yorkshire in the North of England and came to Canada in 1962, just after his graduation.
As to whether Diab’s kids are aware of what’s happening, Clark says, “Jena would probably remember visiting Hassan in France. There’s no indication she is stressed by it, but kids can hide an awful lot of what they’re feeling, and I know that from my own grandchildren. Jad might be affected a little bit less because he’s younger…”
“Our network of active supporters in Canada probably outnumbers 2,000. These are people we can count on for the signatures and fundraising. Others have started a postcard campaign supported by Ottawa’s “Octopus Books”,” says Clark.
MP for Vancouver Kingsway, Don Davies, and Parliamentary Leader of the Green Party of Canada and MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands, Elizabeth May, have also stood by Dr Diab.
“A thing that really struck me when I first became involved was to discover that when Hassan was granted bail in Canada in 2008, he was allowed to move around Ottawa, but in order to get bail, there had to be a large sum of money in sureties. At least 3-4 supporters either mortgaged or re-mortgaged their houses and had enough money to put it in support. Thirteen years later, some of those people are still as active as ever,” affirms Clark.
Hassan’s lawyer in Canada, Don Bayne, has stayed with the family since 2009 and has travelled to Lebanon. He got involved in the case when it was just beginning largely because Rania went to see him, really impressing him with her character and will that he took on Hassan’s case... He’s a powerhouse, maintaining contact with Hassan’s French legal team in Paris, and he’s very well aware of the argument around the Canadian Charter as regards the Extradition Act and its failings,” explains Clark.
The central core of 20-30 supporters includes academics or dedicated social activists, some of whom have had their own battles to fight or have been involved in some of the other big cases in Canada, like Alex Neve, Clark’s successor in “Amnesty International Canada”, and Tim McSorley the National Coordinator of the “International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group”, which was launched by Monia Mazigh.
“The supporters’ spouses have also been drawn in. The support, sympathy and generosity of those families becomes a powerful force. We’ve dedicated ourselves to the cause and will continue doing so,” confirms Clark, who taught in the province of Newfoundland for 19 years.
The activist jokily says, “Jena and Jad have got a lot of new friends who are aging activists. At least two women have almost become like grandmothers to the kids, and I am sure it means a lot to Rania and to Hassan… It’s funny to say the kids often pop up in Zoom meetings, so Hassan will be talking to us, and then suddenly there’s Jena waving to everybody on the call, or Jad sneaking in the corner…”
Clark believes that “the human side of these stories is what captivates people and brings them to understand really what’s at stake.”
Clark points out that “we need to fundraise, particularly if there are serious legal costs as in France; at every stage of the appeal and hearing, there’s another lawyer’s bill. The French lawyers are extremely well-qualified and well-known. We have great respect and good relations with them, and they’re very much in touch with Hassan immediately if something happens in France. But all of those things cost money, and we’ve been successful in fundraising. I think this is probably a reflection of a wider understanding of Hassan’s case. The support he’s got from fundraising and petition signing is encouraging.”
As to whether the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed the support committee’s work, Clark says, “… It seems that the journalists have become readier to be present and ask questions. But people’s attention is elsewhere; their minds are less focused on some of the issues that we would like them to think about; they’re more concerned about vaccinations and not being able to travel and see others – understandably. That’s fine, but I think it does make things a little bit harder.
So if the time comes, we’ll start doing more public demonstrations outside the prime minister’s office and so on.”
Highs & lows
Recollecting sweet moments despite the bitter reality, Professor Clark says, “Volunteering has created some of the sweet moments in this whole thing, in addition to solidarity and companionship among people devoted to the same cause,” whether birthday parties are being celebrated or meetings are being held.
"Another sweet moment was Hassan’s return to Canada in January of 2018… He was freed on a Friday, and his lawyers picked him up from prison that day and took him to a friend’s house. By the weekend flights had been arranged, in conjunction with Canadian Foreign Affairs, so he was on a plane two days later. It was encouraging the Canadian Embassy in Paris was very helpful. They made sure that all got to the airport okay.”
Clark points out that then-Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland asked the embassy to send somebody on the plane with Dr Diab, and so happened on the Iceland flight.
“I think it was a wonderful moment,” recalls Clark, who took photos of the kids at the airport. But there are times when people feel discouraged, so they need support. There’ve been disappointments; we thought Hassan’s appeal to the French Supreme Court would actually go the other way, that they would quash the lower court’s decision to send him to trial, but that didn’t happen, so you try to understand why it happened and what the geopolitical reasons behind some of that are. That’s an important reflection on the circumstances, background, and powers at play.
Interestingly enough, two or three quite powerful Jewish organisations in Canada, like Independent Jewish Voices, have come out in support of Hassan. Besides, one of the senior Canadian Jewish Congress people at the time, in 2009, has since rethought his position, so he’s certainly saying he was mistaken about Hassan’s case and that he supports him. I suppose – by implication – he’s saying Canadian Jewish Congress was mistaken. This carries quite a lot of weight.”
Familiarising the case further
Clark believes that familiarising Lebanese and Canadian Arabs with the case “is an important component, particularly when issues around Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are so current. The more organisations speak out clearly and convincingly about the wrong that’s been done to Hassan, the better it is. I don’t think there is any simple solution, but if it comes, it will by the mobilisation of many components within the Canadian society.
Among some of the most recent arrivals in Canada, there is nervousness and belief that if they become engaged visibly in controversial political issues, they may suffer the consequences or not get their citizenship as easily… Human nature tends to prefer quiet life to engaged life, so that’s a different sort of challenge we face.
Besides, there’s been very little public information in Lebanon about Hassan’s case.
And I fear that in the French society there is no interest in the case, other than that of the Zionist activist groups still determined to try and find Hassan guilty.”
What if the extradition is forced?
“If Hassan is found guilty and sentenced, there would ultimately be a direct appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, which has produced some quite good judgements in line with individual freedoms.
He has a very good legal team in Paris, William Bourdon and his associates, and I know they’ve given some thought to this eventual possibility. Unfortunately appeals to the European Court are quite lengthy,” explains Clark.
Secret intelligence & the geopolitical undertone
A child of the Second World War, who still remembers “some of the areas and ruining of the bombing", and somewhere inside whom “the war-time experience resonates", Clark believes that “certainly true in Hassan’s case and so many instances, the whole geopolitical undertone hides the reality that things occur among governments that are completely outside the public realm of examination and accountability. That’s very sad.
There are huge questions here: On what basis are they going to have a trial? What evidence can they bring forward? Would it have any credibility whatsoever? Where are they going to get that?
One fear is that they might try to reintroduce the secret intelligence information that was introduced very early on as part of the initial extradition request, which came from Goodness knows where. Nobody to this day, possibly including the French themselves, really knows where that stuff came from.
The suspicion is that it was from East Germany because it was a time when the East German regime was breaking down, and a lot of the secret intelligence was revealed when the Stasi libraries became public.
Shortly before Hassan was released, the Israeli secret service made overtures to two of the investigating judges, saying the service had information that’d help convict Hassan. But there was nothing: They presented some material, some of which was actually wrong, including dates, and nothing new was brought forward.”
Clark says “it seemed like a delaying tactic. It did delay Hassan’s release probably for a couple of months. Very murky is this use of secret intelligence that is unsourced and accusatory, has no basis and is impossible to produce in a court of law in any legal sense. You can’t cross-examine the secret intelligence officer even assuming you could find that person.
One fear is that secret intelligence is not gone away, it’s still sitting in the files in the French legal system. Although I think the courts in France will be reluctant to use such information, I don’t know whether that applies in the anti-terrorist court process.”
“Then they came for me”
One would hope that the struggle of Dr Diab and his wife and supporters never gets wasted and that Jena and Jad – Canadian citizens – won’t grow up scarred by the Islamophobia and the racial profiling that the Canadian system is infused in.
“When I asked him about this notion of asking people to get involved and pleading to them to realise it could happen to them,” the dedicated activist recounts, “Hassan quoted German Pastor Martin Niemöller: ‘First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.’”
صدى المشرق (sadaalmashrek.ca)
صدى المشرق (sadaalmashrek.ca)
For any other details and updates, you can visit the “Justice for Hassan Diab” website: https://www.justiceforhassandiab.org.