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World Iranian-Canadian freed from death row as Tehran releases 80 prisoners

Undated photo of Hamid Ghassemi-Shall, a Canadian citizen among a batch of political prisoners released by Iran ahead of a UN speech by Iran President Hassan Rowhani.

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An Iranian-Canadian man who spent the past four years on death row in Tehran has been released from prison, his wife says.

Antonella Mega received word of Hamid Ghassemi-Shall's unexpected release Monday from his sister in Iran. Ms. Mega spoke with her husband briefly over the phone. She does not yet know when he will be back in Toronto.

"I really don't have a lot of information. I just know that he's been released," Ms. Mega said in a brief phone interview Monday night. "I'm just delighted. Absolutely delighted. I look forward to seeing him as soon as possible."

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Ms. Mega said her husband is staying with family in Tehran. Mr. Ghassemi-Shall had been held in an Iranian prison since he was arrested in 2008 and charged with espionage. He was sentenced to death in 2009. An Iranian court rejected his appeal.

It's believed Mr. Ghassemi-Shall was one of 80 political prisoners freed by Iran on Monday ahead of a United Nations gathering in New York this week. The country's new president, Hasan Rouhani, is expected to seek Western pledges to restart stalled negotiations over Iran's nuclear program.

The West suspects Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons. Iran denies the charge, saying its nuclear activities are for peaceful purposes, such as power generation and cancer treatment.

Mr. Rouhani's UN visit has raised speculation on a possible breakthrough in relations with the United States, which severed ties with Tehran after the storming of the U.S. Embassy in late 1979.

Before leaving for New York, Mr. Rouhani urged Western leaders to heed his appeals for greater dialogue and to ease economic sanctions on Iran as a path to "reach joint interests." The West has condemned Iran's crackdowns on the opposition.

Some Iranian conservatives are questioning the outreach. A commentary Monday in the hard-line Kayhan newspaper warned that shaking hands with U.S. President Barack Obama would be a "big mistake" and would represent a concession to Washington without any direct benefit for Iran.

There was no news Monday of the status of a second Iranian-Canadian prisoner, Saeed Malekpour. Iran last week released a dozen prominent political prisoners, including a human rights lawyer. However, the two most senior opposition leaders remain under house arrest.

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A spokesperson for Lynne Yelich, minister of state for foreign affairs, said:  "We are aware of reports that a Canadian imprisoned in Iran has been released. While we are relieved by this development, for privacy reasons, we cannot comment further at this time."

Mr. Ghassemi-Shall emigrated from Iran after that country's 1979 revolution.

The Toronto shoe salesman had made several trips back to visit family without incident before his arrest in 2008.

With reports from The Canadian Press and the Associated Press

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