“Waiting for you Hamid,” says a sign on the front yard at Antonella Mega’s home in the Beach.
Her husband, Hamid Ghassemi-Shall, was released Sept. 23 after five years and four months as a political prisoner in Iran.
If all goes well, Mega can soon put up a sign that says “Welcome home.”
Mega said on Wednesday that Hamid is now free in Tehran and visiting his mother and sister.
“We’re just so thankful,” she said.
Especially for his mother, an elderly widow, Mega said seeing Hamid is a great consolation after his older brother Alborz died in prison three years ago.
Hamid and Alborz were arrested in May 2008 on spying charges when Hamid was on a family visit. Both were immediately jailed in solitary cells at Evin Prison.
“The first 19 months, it was like Hamid was in a black hole,” Mega said.
“I suspect that he himself didn’t know where he was.”
Hamid finally joined other prisoners at Evin in November 2009, but only after signing his own death sentence.
Hamid did have a trial, Mega said, but it was done so quickly he didn’t realize what it was. He was asked just one question, “Is it true your wife is Italian?,” before he was convicted.
Mega, a dual citizen, sought help from the Canadian as well as the Italian government, which happened to be the country chosen to represent Canada after the federal government severed all diplomatic ties with Iran in September 2012.
Before it closed, MP Matthew Kellway arranged several meetings with the Iranian chargee d’affairs in Iran’s Ottawa embassy and was discussing plans to go with Mega to Iran. Kellway said he felt it was important that Iranian officials know a member of Canada’s federal parliament was paying attention to the case.
But no consular officials nor any aid agencies, such as the Red Crescent, could get access to Hamid. For years, the brief phone calls Hamid was allowed after leaving solitary at Evin were his only line out.
“It was a very long road,” she said.
Early on, Mega felt Canadian officials were convinced they could help Hamid by keeping a low public profile – a strategy she did not agree with.
Even now, after the 2011 and 2012 statements by the federal government and House of Commons, Mega looks back and can’t believe the situation.
“Think about it,” she said. “There is a Canadian with a death sentence on his head, and no one knows about it.”
In October 2010, Mega found another way to bring Hamid’s case to light – the Beach chapter of Amnesty International.
Renee Saviour remembers the first day Mega walked into an Amnesty meeting at St. John of Norway.
Mega didn’t say who she was until the end of the meeting, she said. When they finally heard her story, jaws dropped.
Mega explains that she didn’t know much about Amnesty then, and she wanted to be sure it didn’t have a political axe to grind.
“When you’re dealing with governments, everyone has a bias, an agenda,” Mega said. “It doesn’t always fit what you’re trying to do.”
“My job was just to make sure that people knew about Hamid’s situation and if they could, to speak about it.”
Saviour said Amnesty’s model is still based on ordinary citizens writing letters, signing petitions and sending solidarity messages to prisoners.
“I believe that it works,” she said. In a few months, thanks to grassroots work by the Beach chapter, Hamid’s case became a national campaign.
More than 11,000 people signed a petition calling for his release. A scrapbook of Hamid’s story was sent from Signal Hill, Newfoundland across the Prairies to Vancouver, gathering photos of supporters and media attention along the way. An online video detailing his story was produced by a family in the Beach.
And in 2011, a campaign to send Hamid solidarity cards snowballed when some Quebec school teachers took up the cause – Mega received some 4,000 in a single month, and 7,000 altogether.
To show her gratitude, and because she understood others need help, Mega began to join other Amnesty campaigns.
“That’s something amazing about her,” Saviour said. “Once she joined Amnesty, she really campaigned not just on Hamid’s behalf, but on behalf of all political prisoners.”
Saviour also praised Mega for her determined optimism.
“She is a consistent fighter,” she said. “It hasn’t been easy, but she has never been negative.”
For her part, Mega says she has had good reason to stay hopeful.
“You don’t solve things by creating sides – me versus them, us versus them,” she said. “What you want to do is to create bridges, ways to communicate, dialogue.”
“This is a man-created problem, so it’s something that man can solve.”
The Beach chapter of Amnesty International meets at 7:30 p.m. on the second Tuesday of every month at St. John’s Norway Church (Woodbine Ave. at Kingston Rd.). Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.