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Iranian-Canadian, on death row since 2009, freed on eve of UN gathering

Antonella Mega, wife of Hamid Ghassemi-Shall, a Canadian citizen on death row in Iran, poses for a photograph at her home in Toronto on Sunday, September 9, 2012.

matthew sherwood The Globe and Mail

When word came that her husband would unexpectedly be freed from an Iranian prison, it was in a language that Antonella Mega couldn't understand. But her hopes soared as her excited sister-in-law kept repeating his name and seemingly comforting phrases in Farsi.

"I knew it was something good from the way she was speaking," Ms. Mega recalled. "I just didn't know exactly what."

As she soon confirmed her husband, Hamid Ghassemi-Shall, was released from Tehran's notorious Evin prison on Monday, more than five years after he was arrested and charged with espionage. He was sentenced to death row in 2009, but Iranian media reports this week said he had been pardoned after serving a reduced five-year term.

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The Iranian-Canadian, who was detained while visiting his ailing mother, is believed to be one of 80 political prisoners freed by Iran on the eve of a United Nations gathering. Iran's new president, Hasan Rouhani, is leading a diplomatic charm offensive in New York that has sparked speculation about a possible breakthrough in historically frosty relations with the United States. The Iranian government has also agreed to hold new talks on its nuclear program.

Ms. Mega is hoping her husband, who is now staying with his sister in Tehran, will be able to return to their east-end Toronto home soon, but said it's unclear whether the Iranian government has placed any conditions on his release.

"My position always has been that I'll feel better when he's here with me," said Ms. Mega, who met her husband when she bought a pair of shoes from him at the Eaton Centre in the 1990s. "So my goal is really for him to be here, but of course this is wonderful."

Since Mr. Ghassemi-Shall's release, Ms. Mega has spoken with him several times. Their first conversation was focused on the basics, with Ms. Mega trying to confirm that he had indeed been freed, rather than just let out on a day pass.

"Yes, I'm home now," she recalls him saying, but doesn't remember much else: "We were both overwhelmed."

Initially, her husband sounded "a little bit out of sorts" and "wasn't making 100-per-cent sense," Ms. Mega said, attributing his confusion to his long ordeal. During his five-year imprisonment, he was interrogated several times and is likely traumatized, she said.

"It'll be a long road, but I hope he'll be okay," she said. "He's just kind of starting to breathe."

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In subsequent phone calls, Ms. Mega had to tell her husband that Gunner, their beloved 11-year-old German Shepherd, is dying of suspected spleen cancer. She arranged to have him euthanized on Tuesday.

"It's one of those situations where you're ecstatic on one side and being dragged down on the other."

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