v A case that rocked France almost forty years ago may soon be closed without being resolved. On October 3rd 1980 a bomb exploded outside a synagogue is western Paris’s Copernic Street, killing four people and wounding dozens.
It was the first antisemitic attack in France since World War II, but became the first in a string of attacks against the Jewish community.
On July 6th, a Paris appeal court will decide whether the sole suspect identified by investigators, 64-year-old Canadian-Lebanese national Hassan Diab, will undergo a trial.
In January the court dismissed the case, saying that evidence against Diab was not “convincing enough” and that “certain elements show the suspect was most likely in Beirut at the time of the attack”. Diab was released and returned to Canada.
But the prosecution appealed that decision and argues last week in court that there are enough elements for a trial.
“Evidence over this case has been collected for 38 years by magistrates, investigators and intelligence services,” said the prosecutor. “It was quickly established that the attack was carried out by the Palestinian terrorist group the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine — Special Operations unit.”
The investigation determined that the attackers arrived in Paris via Spain, checked in to a hotel, made the explosives, hired a motorbike and placed the bomb on the bike outside the synagogue.
The timer was set for the end of the Simchat Torah service but the bomb went off early, before worshippers had left the building.
Diab’s passport is one on the key elements in the case. It shows he left Beirut before the attack, on September 17th, entered Spain on 20th and left on October 7th.
Investigators believe this corresponds to the terrorist cell’s trajectory. Another crucial puece of evidence is the suspect’s photo-fit, made through the testimonies of twelve witnesses, which matches Diab’s features.
“Hassan Diab’s friend said the photo-fit looked just like him” said victims’ lawyer Bernard Cahen. “Another friend of his said he belonged to the PFLP group.”
Defence lawyers dismissed this evidence, arguing that Diab’s passport had been stolen and that a man with the same name may have committed the attack. They say Diab has a strong alibi as he was in Lebanon at the time of the attack, undergoing university exams.
“University files show and several witnesses have confirmed” that he was in Beirut, said Diab’s attorney.
There are other arguments over evidence such as graphological expertise over several documents the attacker signed during the operation, including his hotel registration. French experts had identified Diab as having written them but other experts concluded it was not him.
“Your honour, we have qualified handwriting experts in our country. Why should we dismiss their conclusions because some private Canadian experts have another analysis?” said prosecution lawyer Bernard Cahen. “Everyone knows that defence attorneys pay experts and they chose the one that works best for their case.”
Another lawyer, representing anti-racist group Licra, said the victims should not be denied a trial: “It’s statistically very rare to dismiss a case this way and when that does happen, it’s because there isn’t enough evidence. But this is not the case here. There’s clearly enough evidence so don’t confiscate the right for a judiciary debate. This case is a page of French history. It’s the beginning of modern day terrorism.”
Defence lawyers noted that investigators could not find Diab’s fingerprints on the bomb orother objects touched by the attackers. They accused victims’ lawyers and the prosecution of “twisting the facts”.