“Forever Prisoners”– Hassan Diab and Julian Assange

There is a new documentary film by Alex Gibney called The Forever Prisoner.   It details 20 years of incarceration and torture of Abu Zubaydah at US black sites in Thailand , Poland finally at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Abu Zubaydah is a man whom the CIA called a “high-value detainee.”   He was a Palestinian who lived in Saudi Arabia.  Grabbed in Pakistan a year after 9-11, to date Abu Zubaydah has never been charged with a crime. He remains a prisoner in a cage at Gitmo.  He’s what the CIA calls a “Forever Prisoner” jailed in a separate and out-of-sight unit for high-value detainees at Guantánamo.   CIA officials calls the special jail Strawberry Fields. The nickname refers to the Beatles’ song, Strawberry Fields Forever, because detainees are meant to be held there “forever”.

Strawberry Fields Forever

Images below: photo of Abu Zubaydah (Daily Beast); film poster for The Forever Prisoner, HBO; mistreatment of detainees at Gitmo (credit Shane McCoy/mai/mai/GettyImages in The Times)

As I write this, I think about the incarceration and torturous conditions imposed on Julian Assange in Britain’s Belmarsh maximum security prison for the last nearly 3 years.  Assange, an Australian journalist and founder of Wikileaks, in April 2010 made public, among other revelations,  a half-hour 2007 video which showed US airstrikes on a Baghdad street that Wikileaks termed “collateral murder.”  A group of civilians along with two Reuters journalists were killed in the strike.  One can hear the American military crew responsible for launching the airstrike by pushing a button on a computer, laughing and joking throughout the operation.  The 30 plus minute video Collateral Murder, can be seen here.

A few months later, Assange was targeted by Swedish authorities who charged him with sexual assault.  Assange denied it.  He and others saw this was a “back door” to force him to face charges in Sweden which would lead to his extradition to the US.  In 2012, Assange decided to seek sought refuge in the embassy of Ecuador.  He lived there for nearly seven years — in a room, never going outside, his lawyers were his only visitors.  In 2019, Sweden dropped the charges against him, due to lack of evidence.  Under huge pressure, no doubt from the US, Ecuador then allowed the police to enter and arrest Assange and drag him to jail.  He had skipped bail and hidden in the embassy.  

Julian Assange leaving court in prison van Jan. 2021 (Reuters, BBC News)

A month later, the US charged Assange with violating the Espionage Act and demanded he be extradited to the US.  He has sat, in segregation in maximum security Belmarsh Prison, in London.  Belmarsh is known as Britain’s Guantánamo Bay because after 9-11, foreigners were jailed there without charge.

In a number of articles here, here and here, renowned Australian investigative journalist and filmmaker John Pilger has exposed the horrifying conditions Assange has been in since spring 2019.  Assange, just over 50 years of age, sustained a small stroke in October 2021.  His eyes are now vacant, his lethargy evident and his senses dulled by “medication”, as Pilger points out.   A neuropsychologist from Imperial College in London, told the court that Assange’s intellect had gone from “in the superior, or more likely very superior, range” to “significantly below” this optimal level, to the point where he was struggling to absorb information and perform in the low to average range”.

At the first extradition hearing held in January 2021, a judge halted Assange’s extradition to the US on moral and mental health grounds. However earlier this month, two higher court judges (both tainted with Tory connections) overturned the first decision and ordered that he could be extradited.  This despite the fact Assange has tried to take his own life more than once. Experts say he will not survive prison in the US—not for even for a brief part of his sentence presumed to total 175 years.

“This is a show trial; everyone knows the power of the CIA.”

John Pilger, investigative journalist and filmmaker

As Wikileaks has pointed out, “You don’t publish a million secrets a year without making a few enemies.”   John Pilger, commenting on the December trial, highlights the gravity of the situation, “This is a show trial; everyone knows the power of the CIA.”

We know that Britain, a stalwart member of the Five Eyes “community” – post World War II cold warriors composed of English-speaking countries — plays along with the US and is part of its sphere of influence. What the US wants, it gets.  It wants to bury Assange, either literally or metaphorically as a “forever prisoner”. 

Hassan Diab: Canadian political prisoner

Another political prisoner is Canada’s own Hassan Diab.  He has been subject to years of incarceration in France, unemployment, separation from his wife and children, plus the threat of extradition once again to France.  Diab is a sociologist who taught at Carleton University in Ottawa. 

Hassan Diab and his family in Ottawa, after his release from a Paris jail in 2018. (credit: Wayne Cuddington/Postmedia in the Ottawa Citizen)

A year ago, he was ordered once again to stand trial for a crime he could not possibly have committed in France – 42 years ago. In fact, Diab was never charged with any crime. After spending three years in solitary confinement in a violent  French jail, a court found there was no evidence to charge or continue to hold Diab for the 1980 bombing of a Paris synagogue. The bomb killed four people and injured more than 40.

In fact, Diab was never charged with any crime. Diab was neither involved in the bombing, nor even in France at the time.  Instead, there are eyewitness accounts and college records that show that Diab was writing university examinations in Beirut, Lebanon at the time.  In addition, though French prosecutors insisted that handwriting on a Paris hotel register was Diab’s, four internationally-recognized handwriting experts swore it was not a match.

Images, clockwise from top left: Diab’s letter to his childrenfrom a French prison (Ottawa Citizen); personal photo by Geoff Parks, 1980 of Eiffel Tower with Portuguese Water dog in front; bomb scene in Paris, 1980 (The Forward); artist’s impression of bombing suspect 1980 from French police (BBC.com); Hubert Robert’s Self Portrait as an Inmate of Saint Lazare Prison (1794) credit: The Drawing Centre, New York.

This travesty of justice began 14 years ago in 2008, when the RCMP arrested the Carleton University lecturer and placed him under severe bail restrictions.  Six miserable years later, a Canadian judge admitted the case was “very confusing” and “convoluted” though he allowed Diab’s extradition to France in 2014.  There, he was jailed for more than three years in solitary confinement before the case against him crumbled. Read my background blog about Diab here.

The real question is why? Why is France insisting Diab is the bomber? There is precious little evidence. And why is Canada, which turned him over to France once, even considering turning him over for a second time?  In whose interest are Canadian officials acting?

When Diab was first returned home in 2018 (after three years in a segregation cell) PM Trudeau said what Diab went through “never should have happened.”

In March 2021, Trudeau gave some banal generalities about Canada

“…standing up for our citizens all around the world with countries that…[are] our allies. And those conversations will continue.”

PM Justin Trudeau here

But like the case of Assange, Canada is a mere intermediary – a broker – for an imperialist country —France.  For decades, French relatives of the dead and injured victims have demanded investigators find and punish the perpetrators of the bombing.  According to Ottawa-based writer Michelle Weinroth,

“The real culprit, who was 40 in 1980 (while Dr. Diab was 26), in all likelihood no longer walks the face of this earth. But the French prosecutors have sought to make him walk again in the guise of a fictitious suspect, so that the victims of the 1980 bombing can feel their grief assuaged by seeing a scapegoat condemned to hell.”

Michelle Weinroth, writing in The Bullet

Now with Diab as the only suspect, the French families, the French Jewish community and the French government will not let him go.   But as Aurélie Lefebvre, one of Diab’s criminal lawyers in France, points out, the right “to have the real perpetrators accountable is not a right that could be satisfied in any way with the trial of a man who is innocent and for whom we have so many [sic] evidence that show his innocence.”

Mainstream Canadian Jewish community calls Diab an “accused terrorist mass murderer” — yet there is no credible evidence, and no charges against him

Not only are elements in the Jewish community in France driving Diab’s prosecution, but so are key members of the establishment Canadian Jewish community.  In 2009, B’nai Brith Canada criticized Carleton University for allowing Diab to continue to teach. B’nai Brith Canada’s then-Executive Vice-President, Frank Dimant, issued a statement which charged that Diab’s employment was endangering the “safety and security of the community as a whole, and of the Carleton University campus.”

Dimant went on to say “…The last place in the world where this man [Diab] belongs is in a university classroom, in front of impressionable students.”  Carleton University fired Diab that very day.

B’nai Brith Canada describes itself as a human rights organization which has “championed the cause of human rights in Canada since 1875.” Its YouTube site displays the motto: “Grassroots human rights advocacy and a lifeline for our community.” B’nai Brith’s League for Human Rights “advocates for the human rights of all Canadians… and advocates for global human rights…” If B’nai Brith and its League for Human Rights advocates for human rights, what about the rights of Hassan Diab? Isn’t a basic tenet of all human rights the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty? Clearly B’nai Brith is selective about its human rights advocacy.  

Two other prominent Canadian Jewish organizations also joined the chorus to condemn Diab–without a trial.  The Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) demanded that Diab immediately be sent to France for trial (which never took place).

“The freeing of Diab can only encourage Jihadists to further terrorism in France, believing that they can truly get away with murder. We urge French Justice to return Diab to custody before he can flee the country as a hero to every Islamist.”

Mincing no words, and showing no proof, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, SWC’s then-associate dean, called Diab “an accused terrorist mass murderer.”

SWC’s then-CEO Avi Benlolo said, Carleton University was treating “an accused terrorist mass murderer as if he was charged with drunk driving.” Even when Diab was released and returned to Canada in 2018, the SWC urged that “the public trial of Diab go forward with or without his presence in court.”

In 2014, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) applauded the decision to uphold the extradition order against Diab: “The fact that the main suspect in this hateful terrorist attack will indeed face the justice system gives hope to the survivors…”  That is the last statement CIJA made – they still don’t defend the rights of an innocent person — who happens to be Muslim.

In 2008, Bernie Farber, former CEO of the now-defunct Canadian Jewish Congress (an umbrella group which, for more than 80 years, represented the broader Jewish community) supported Diab’s arrest. Farber said he was “very pleased” that law enforcement authorities were “never giving up in the fight against terrorism.” But then he recanted. He wrote “… it was all too easy to unquestioningly accept the decision to leave it in hands of France… But a decade later, justice has not been served.”

Benjamin Shinewald a lawyer for the then-Canadian Jewish Congress, also admitted to “piling on” against Diab. Ten years later, he apologized and expressed “deepest regret to Mr. Diab for my actions. I also commit to supporting his principled and honourable campaign for a public inquiry.” He also called on the Centre for Israel Jewish Affairs (CIJA), the successor to the Canadian Jewish Congress, to support Diab’s rights. Something CIJA refuses to do.

At no time did any of these mainstream Jewish organizations, including CIJA, B’nai Brith or the Simon Wiesenthal Center try to make common cause with more than 20 well-respected social justice and advocacy groups such as Amnesty International, the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the BC Civil Liberties Association, the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group, and the Canadian Labour Congress.  They all demanded justice for Diab. 

Two Jewish organizations did support Diab — the United Jewish People’s Order and Independent Jewish Voices Canada.   IJV Canada has supported Diab from the start and demanded he be freed.  IJV Canada joined with other Canadian advocacy groups to expose discredited evidence and the Canadian government’s complicity in allowing Diab’s extradition.

Diab case is reminiscent of Canada’s shameful handling of the Arar case and others…

The way the Canadian government handled the Diab case is eerily reminiscent of its bungling of cases involving other Arab-Canadians including Maher Arar, Omar Khadr, Muayyed Nureddin, Abdullah Almalki and Ahmad Elmaati. All were tortured in foreign countries as a result of faulty Canadian intelligence and the refusal by Canadian governments of the day to intervene. All have since been issued apologies and compensation.  However, the case of Mohammed Harkat has dragged on for 20 years.  Harkat, an Algerian, came to Canada in 1995. Since just after 9/11, he was arrested as a terrorist, though the government’s evidence against him remains  secret—both to his lawyer and to the public.  Prime Minister Trudeau’s own brother, Alexandre Trudeau, filed a letter of support on Harkat’s behalf — which said that Harkat “poses no danger whatsoever to the public or to public safety in Canada.”

Still, Harkat now faces an extradition order issued under Canada’s security certificate regime, which allows the federal government to hold foreign-born terror suspects indefinitely.   So we see Islamophobia is very much at play in all these cases, including Hassan Diab’s.

Torture includes waterboarding, being held in stress positions, deprivation of food and water, “forever” incarceration, segregation and rendition.  All these are hallmarks of what happened to thousands of brown people – Muslims — in US-run black sites, in Abu Graib, and in Guantánamo. 

Assange was a whistle-blower and a journalist,  not a criminal.  Diab was a professor who did nothing wrong.  But both face years in foreign prisons because the UK and Canada refuse to stand up to the US and to France.  Both men could be extradited at any time.  And if they are, there is little hope for justice. 

Featured Image: Inmates at Isle of Man Prison developed an art project; they painted scenes on recycled roller blinds, read more here.

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