When Hamid Ghassemi-Shall and his wife, Antonella Mega, sat down with their friends for Thanksgiving dinner, they blessed more than the Persian chicken, the saffron-perfumed rice and the fine pastries that had been set on the table.
They celebrated Mr. Ghassemi-Shall’s freedom. The 46-year-old Toronto resident was just released from the Iranian prisons where he was held captive for five years. “Every breath tastes sweeter than the one before,” Ms. Mega says.
And yet freedom is bittersweet for Mr. Ghassemi-Shall, who still sounds dazed when reached by telephone at the east Toronto home he returned to on Thursday. His brother, Alborz, never made it out of the Tehran prison where they were both held captive. And there are all the political prisoners left behind at the notorious Evin prison where Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi was beaten to death.
“The bruises go away, but the psychological torture, that stays with you for the rest of your life. I don’t think I can forget that. It wasn’t just one or two months, this lasted 64 months,” Mr. Ghassemi-Shall says.
Last week, Tarek Loubani and John Greyson returned to Canada after spending 53 days in an Egyptian jail. But their tumultuous exit out of Egypt overshadowed the simultaneous return of this shoe salesman who faced the death penalty after being convicted of espionage in a nightmarish ordeal.
In the spring of 2008, Mr. Ghassemi-Shall visited his ailing mother in Tehran. During his stay, his brother Alborz, a retired Iranian navy officer, was arrested. His mother’s house was searched, his papers seized, and when he tried to retrieve them, he was arrested himself. Mr. Ghassemi-Shall immigrated to Canada in 1994, but Iran does not recognize his dual citizenship.
Mr. Ghassemi-Shall endured months of solitary confinement and beatings. He was also chained while being interviewed for hours on end. More scarring, he was not allowed to attend his brother’s funeral. Prison officials say Alborz died of stomach cancer, but the Ghassemi-Shall family does not buy the theory and believes he was beaten to death.
“He was the one who would hold me in his arms to put me back to sleep. He was like my father,” Mr. Ghassemi-Shall says of his brother who was nine years his elder.
Despite the torture, the lost appeal, the back and forth between death row and a lesser sentence, Mr. Ghassemi-Shall never gave up. “When you know you are innocent from the bottom of your heart, there is always hope things will get resolved,” he says. But he also knew that anything could happen to him. “When you deal with unpredictable people, you live in fear of what will happen in the next hour. That fear is always with you, when you eat, when you fall asleep.”
After staying silent for a year in the hopes a discreet approach would ease his freedom, Ms. Mega campaigned tirelessly so that Iranian and Canadian officials would not forget her husband was rotting in a Tehran cell. Her letters and the ones sent by thousands of supporters likely saved Mr. Ghassemi-Shall’s life. “At times, he was perilously close to being executed. The international attention was a factor in keeping him alive,” says Gloria Nafziger, refugee and country co-ordinator at Amnesty International Canada.
April, 2012, was one such time. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird pleaded with the Iranian government to save Mr. Ghassemi-Shall’s life. Shortly after, Prime Minister Stephen Harper weighed in, saying “the whole world will be watching.” But when Canada severed diplomatic ties with Iran in September, hopes that Ottawa could pressure the Islamic Republic into releasing its Toronto prisoner were dashed. Mr. Harper himself described the country’s diplomatic influence as “minimal.”
Mr. Ghassemi-Shall believes Ottawa was too slow in pressuring Iran. “Had they made those statements earlier, my situation would have gotten resolved a long time ago. They could have done more.”
When Mr. Ghassemi-Shall was put in jail, he and his wife were planning to adopt a baby. Now, they hope to put their lives back together. “We are two different people now, but we are going to pick up our lives and start over,” Ms. Mega says.
And yet Mr. Ghassemi-Shall finds himself looking back to the past when he worries about the political prisoners still held in Iran. There is Abdolfattah Soltani, the human-rights lawyer who defended him, sentenced to 18 years. There is Saeed Malekpour, the Canadian website designer who has been sentenced to death after being found guilty of desecrating Islam for developing software that was later used by pornographic websites. He has not forgotten them.