Why we need a public inquiry into the Hassan Diab case

For the Ottawa Citizen
Updated: June 13, 2018

A grave injustice was visited upon Hassan Diab, a Lebanese-born sociology professor from Ottawa. It stemmed in part from his own government’s laws and actions. As a Canadian lawmaker, I am compelled to speak out and demand that we find out why he was subjected to such appalling treatment.

In 2008, the French government applied to extradite Diab, a Canadian citizen and father to a young family, on the basis of evidence described by the Canadian judge as “weak, convoluted and confusing (with) suspect conclusions.” He was extradited nonetheless, in 2014. Diab maintained his innocence from the beginning of his nine-year ordeal.

After living for 38 months in a French prison, during which he missed the birth of his son, formative years in the life of his young daughter, the funeral of his brother and the death of his father, Diab was returned to Canada a free man, earlier this year. Despite the French government’s best efforts, the French court system could no longer punish a demonstrably innocent person.

How could this have happened? How could a Canadian citizen be robbed of his freedom on the basis of incredibly weak evidence from a foreign state? How could a Canadian citizen be extradited — without a trial date or any charges — to sit in solitary confinement while the requesting country continued its investigation?

What we know, at least, is that Canada’s extradition law is deeply flawed. Gary Botting, an expert on Canadian extradition law, described Diab’s case as “slimy” and “the lowest low in terms of qualitative judicial practice.” But he says this is standard procedure for Canada’s extradition system.

We also know that senior counsel at the federal Department of Justice worked to secure court delays and provide substantive support to France when its case was falling apart. The department even withheld exculpatory evidence from the defence and the extradition judge.

It is truly heartbreaking that our government was complicit in such a profound injustice against one of its own citizens. What is more tragic is that the same thing could happen to other Canadians in the absence of adequate reforms and accountability.

That is why I have joined Amnesty International Canada, the Canadian Association of University Teachers, the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association and others to demand an independent public inquiry into Diab’s extradition.

I was somewhat relieved to hear that Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould has written to the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and Amnesty International Canada mentioning that she had recently “asked for an independent external review” into Diab’s case.

But an independent external review is not the answer here. The justice minister must commission an independent public inquiry under the Inquiries Act, meaning that a commissioner or commissioners — likely a senior judge or group of judges — would have the power to summon witnesses in a public process, and would report back to government within a set period.

We have no clue, on the other hand, what an independent external review would look like. As Diab’s lawyer stated, such a review could become a “cosmetic whitewash” of what took place. That outcome would be insulting to Diab and his family, and would do little to assuage Canadians’ concerns.

Nothing short of an independent public inquiry into Diab’s ordeal — determining how our laws allowed this, and the role played by government officials — will ensure that a modicum of justice is achieved, and that this will never happen again.

Elizabeth May is Leader of the Green Party of Canada and MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands.