PARIS (AP) — A Paris court convicted a Lebanese-Canadian professor in absentia on terrorism charges Friday and sentenced him to life in prison over a deadly Paris synagogue bombing in 1980 that was for decades one of France's biggest unsolved crimes.
The court issued an arrest warrant for suspect Hassan Diab, who lives and teaches in Ottawa, Canada, and denies wrongdoing. He was convicted of terrorist murder for an attack that killed four and wounded 46.
For victims, the ruling means justice at last, more than four decades after a bombing described as the first antisemitic terrorist attack in France since World War II.
But for Diab and his supporters, the decision is a shock and a judicial error. His lawyers say he was in Lebanon studying for university exams at the time of the attack and is a victim of mistaken identity, a scapegoat for a justice system determined to find a culprit.
French authorities accuse Diab of planting the bomb on a motorbike outside the synagogue on Rue Copernic in Paris, where 320 worshipers had gathered to mark the end of a Jewish holiday on the evening of Oct. 3, 1980. Several were children celebrating their bar mitzvahs.
Investigators initially suspected far-right extremists, before shifting their focus to Palestinian militants. French investigators eventually attributed the attack to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-Special Operations. But no one ever claimed responsibility.
Friday's conviction was a surprise to many even in the court. Among the defense witnesses was a magistrate who investigated the case and testified that there was not enough evidence to convict Diab.
His supporters urged Canada not to arrest and extradite Diab, who has already faced years of legal battles in the case.
Canada authorized his extradition to France in 2014 as part of the investigation, but after three years in pretrial detention, anti-terrorism judges ordered him freed for lack of evidence. Then an appeals court ruled that he should stand trial on terrorism charges. Diab remained in Canada throughout the trial, which started earlier this month.
For those touched by the attack, the trial was a long-awaited opportunity to speak publicly about what happened. Survivors described years of physical and mental trauma. Some said the sound of motorcycles haunted them after that night. Families of those killed mourned lost children or siblings.
The head of France's leading Jewish group, CRIF, welcomed the conviction, and urged Canada to arrest Diab. The victims’ attorneys say the long-awaited trial will serve as a deterrent for future terrorist acts and antisemitic sentiments.
Prosecutors argued that Diab has been lying to himself for 40 years and is caught up in his denial and escape from reality.
Diab’s lawyer, William Bourdon, had pleaded for an acquittal, saying that convicting someone would be “a judicial mistake.’’
Amnesty International was among those who called for the court to drop what they call a flawed and baseless case, arguing that it “undermines effective justice for victims.”
Some lawyers for the 18 people and six groups that were party to the case acknowledged that it was hard to build a case so many years later, especially without the kind of DNA evidence or cell phone data used in current investigations.
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