Suspect in 1980 Paris synagogue bombing ordered to stand trial

·4-min read

A French appeals court ruled on Wednesday that the sole suspect in the 1980 bombing of a Paris synagogue must stand trial, more than forty years after the attack.

On the evening of October 3, 1980, as Jews were celebrating the last day of the festival of Simha Torah (‘celebration of the Torah’), a bomb exploded outside a synagogue on an affluent street in western Paris.

The force of the explosion on Copernic street set stores on fire, ripped a crater in the pavement and upturned cars, killing four people and injuring 40 others.

Inside the synagogue, the glass ceiling dropped and the front door was blasted open.

It was the first deadly attack against the French Jewish community since the Nazi occupation of France in World War II.

Yet it could have been much worse. The bomb exploded just before a crowd of worshippers left the synagogue.

Five children were holding their bat mitzvah that evening and the synagogue was packed. But the service went on longer than planned, averting a worse bloodbath outside the building.

“I remember the explosion and the ceiling dropping on us,” recalled Corinne Adler, who celebrated her bat mitzvah that day. "My father said ‘It’s a bomb! We have to get out’”

Forty years later, Adler stood outside the Paris court room, hopeful after hearing that Canadian academic Hassan Diab, 67, the sole suspect in the bombing, will stand trial.

Long-running investigation

“I’ve been hoping for a trial for years. I believed in the case but so many people said it would never take place that I almost started losing faith,” Adler told FRANCE 24.

At first the investigation made quick progress. Within minutes the bomb – 10 kilos of explosives, filled with nails that tore through victims’ throats, brains and vital organs – was traced to a bag on a motorcycle parked outside the synagogue.

“The serial number on the motorcycle got us to the store where the motorcycle was bought,” said Jacques Poinas of the Paris crime squad.

Fake ID used by the suspect who bought the motorcycle led police to his hotel. Witnesses, including a prostitute and a police investigator who briefly detained him for shop-lifting, helped police produce a photofit.

But the police also threw away a dozen cigarette butts smoked by the alleged killer, not realising that one day they could be used to test a suspect’s DNA.

French authorities believed the attack was carried out by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which began targeting Jewish communities abroad a few years before the Copernic bombing.

But then the trail went cold. The case only resurfaced years later when German intelligence services said the bombmaker was called Hassan and French intelligence services said the suspect was a Lebanese sociology student called Hassan Diab, active in a Palestinian militant group in the early 1980s.

Years later, Diab’s old passport was found in Italy. It shows that he travelled on it from Lebanon to Spain in September 1980 around the time of the attack. Diab was then traced to Canada, where he tought sociology at two Ottawa universities. He was arrested in 2008 and extradited to France in 2014.

A 'message' to would-be terrorists

Diab has always maintained his innocence, claiming his passport was stolen and that it is a case of mistaken identity.

His ex-wife and several students at the university of Beirut did not testify in his favour during his extradition hearings. But once he was imprisoned in Paris they testified that Diab was with them in Beirut at the time of the attack.

“Beirut university itself has documents showing he passed exams there and got his diploma,” Apolline Cagnat, one of Diab’s French lawyers, told FRANCE 24.

In January 2018, after the case against Diab collapsed over a lack of evidence, he was allowed to return to Canada, where he is suing the country over his extradition and time spent in jail.

But the appeals court's decision to put Diab on trial changes everything.

“It is not going to be a traditional trial. The evidence is from another era. That’s why we were very cautious about the chances of even having a trial,” said victims’ lawyer David Pere. “I think this decision is a message France is sending out to yesterday’s and tomorrow’s wannabe terrorists: It will not let them walk free.”

“I am trying to get my head around this,” said Adler. “Why did the judges allow the suspect to leave the country if there was a possibility the trial would go ahead? Will he return to France to prove he is innocent? At least the court will fully examine the facts and we will finally know who is responsible or not for what happened on that day.”

Diab did not respond to FRANCE 24’s request for comment.

“He is extremely disappointed. This decision contradicts everything we have learned about this case,” said Diab’s lawyer Apolline Cagnat.

“We will take this to the highest jurisdiction to overturn this decision because our client is innocent!" added a second defence lawyer, Amélie Lefebvre. "There are multiple elements of proof showing he is innocent.”