Leaning on a rake, Hamid Ghassemi-Shall looks over his backyard and the blanket of wet leaves that waits for him.
It’s the last day of November, just nine weeks since Ghassemi-Shall was freed from Iran’s Evin Prison and allowed to rejoin his wife in Toronto.
“It’s my turn,” he says, looking at the leaves with a little smile. “I haven’t done it for six years.”
Ghassemi-Shall and his wife Antonella Mega have a lot of work to do these days – and not only at home in the Beach. Now that Ghassemi-Shall is free from a death sentence and 64 months of wrongful imprisonment in Iran, they are busy telling his story and trying to help the many other political prisoners still trapped there.
Speaking Friday to a crowd of Amnesty International supporters at the University of Toronto, Ghassemi-Shall thanked them for their letter-writing, noting how it pressured Iranian officials to review his case, even five years after he and his brother Alborz Ghassemi-Shall were imprisoned for “espionage.”
In May of 2008, Hamid was in Tehran to see his mother when his brother Alborz was suddenly arrested by military intelligence officers. While Hamid was out trying to find his brother, his mother’s apartment was raided and his own Canadian passport was stolen. When he tried to clear it up with authorities, five men surrounded him and took him in for questioning.
“They said it would take a few hours,” Hamid said, but what followed was 18 months of solitary confinement and a brutal series of interrogations.
The officers accused Hamid and Alborz of sharing classified information. But since neither confessed and there was no real evidence against them, they soon dropped the charges.
Rather than being released, however, new charges were laid – including one for offending God – and this time their case went to Iran’s Revolutionary Court, which oversees national security issues and is responsible for Iran’s many prisoners of conscience.
Hamid and Alborz were moved to the regular prison population at Evin, and got word out to their family. But they had no lawyer before their trial, and Hamid was sentenced to be executed.
Living for four years on death row, Hamid said life was upside-down.
“But you’re not thinking about yourself,” he said. “You’re thinking about your loved ones.”
Hamid said he was also thinking about his fellow prisoners. Five men he knew were executed while he was at Evin, two with the same charges laid against him.
“It wasn’t like they would come and announce it publicly,” he said. “They would come in private, they would take the person aside, and ask them to come with them to the other side of the wall.”
One night, they came for Hamid. A guard came into his cell, blindfolded him, walked him to the other side of the prison and sat him against a wall.
It was 15 minutes before they took him back again.
Back in Canada, Antonella Mega was waging a public campaign to free Hamid, with major support from Amnesty International and its local Beach chapter. Although it was complicated, Mega said she found several Canadian politicians willing to help, and from across party lines – Matthew Kellway, John McKay, Art Eggleton, Bob Rae, Linda Frum, and Jack Layton.
By January 2011, the federal government made its first public statement about Hamid’s case. And in May of 2012, with the threat of an execution looming, the House of Commons passed a unanimous motion asking Iran to grant Hamid clemency.
Things started to change at Evin when an Iranian intelligence director phoned Hamid and asked to hear his whole story again.
“He told me he was going to go and investigate, and if he found out something related to the charges, he’s going to push for execution,” Hamid said.
That investigation finally led to an hour-and-a-half retrial, which he said was “just a joke.” Hamid was sentenced to five years, and then released for time served.
But it was already too late for Hamid’s brother Alborz. In 2009, when military intelligence threatened to interrogate them a second time, Alborz panicked. He was brought to hospital, and what happened next is still unclear.
Authorities say Alborz had stomach cancer, but while in hospital he phoned Hamid and said he had been beaten. Three weeks after he returned to prison, his health failed, and he died.
Today, Hamid is doing all he can to prevent the same fate for the many political prisoners that he lived with in Evin.
“If you guys did it for me, we can do it for the rest,” he told his Amnesty International supporters on Friday, many of whom were writing letters before and after his speech. “Don’t think, ‘Well, one single signature, one single card doesn’t have that power.’ I believe it does.”
On Dec. 9, a day before he and Mega fly to Ottawa where they will be recognized in the House of Commons, Hamid will speak to the Beach chapter of Amnesty International at St. John’s Norway Church about the next campaigns.
There is Omid Kokabee, a 31-year-old Iranian physicist sentenced to 10 years in Evin because he is doing post-doctoral work in the US and rejected offers to work for the Iranian military.
“I spent a year and a half with him,” he said. “It’s hard to see an intelligent person that is a genius, at the age of 28 studying for his PhD.”
There is Abdolfattah Soltani, a prominent Iranian human rights lawyer who offered to represent Hamid in 2009, but who was arrested days later and is now serving a 13 year sentence.
“He doesn’t charge anyone,” Hamid said. “He does it for goodwill.”
There is Saeed Malekpour, a Canadian resident who Hamid knew for six months, and who was imprisoned after his software was used by other people to distribute pornographic images.
Before he turned back to the leaves in his backyard, Hamid said, “People have to understand this thing. You know, the nationality doesn’t matter. Everybody has rights in this world. And this thing can happen to anybody.”