Hamid Ghassemi-Shall to speak at Beaches Write for Rights

Belle Smith writes dozens of letters a year to help victims of human-rights abuse.

“There are so many horrible things — man’s inhumanity to man is just unbelievable,” said Smith, who volunteers with the Beaches chapter of Amnesty International.

“But you’re hoping the more people who write letters, the more it will urge politicians or whomever to get moving and do something about it.”

The Beaches Amnesty group meets once a month at St. John’s Norway Church. They read Amnesty reports about abuse victims, then write letters on their behalf.

On Dec. 9, the group will host Write for Rights, an Amnesty write-a-thon that resulted in 2.3 million letters from 143 countries last year.

“Every one of these little groups will try to get people out writing,” said Smith, adding that anyone is welcome to join.

Among the cases highlighted at this year’s Write for Rights is that of Moses Akatugba — a Nigerian man who was only 16 when soldiers beat him, shot him in the hand, and tortured him into signing a confession for armed robbery.

Now 23, Akatugba lives under a death sentence.

He sent a handwritten note from prison this September to thank all the Amnesty members who have written the Nigerian government asking for his release.

“I am short of words to express my innermost gratitude to everyone,” he wrote.

Normally, exchanges between the Beaches Amnesty group and the people they are trying to help stay on paper. Most, but not all the cases Amnesty takes up are happening in faraway countries.

But for volunteers in the Beach, this is a special year.

Antonella Mega was finally reunited with husband Hamid Ghassemi-Shall on Oct. 10, 2013 at Pearson Airport. Ghassemi-Shall was released from an Iranian jail on Sept. 23 after five years of wrongful imprisonment. PHOTO: Beach Metro News
Antonella Mega was finally reunited with husband Hamid Ghassemi-Shall on Oct. 10, 2013 at Pearson Airport. Ghassemi-Shall was released from an Iranian jail on Sept. 23 after five years of wrongful imprisonment.
PHOTO: Beach Metro News

Back in 2012, Smith and others were sending letters to Iran on behalf of Hamid Ghassemi-Shall. Wrongfully convicted in 2008 for espionage, Ghassemi-Shall was by then, like Akatugba, living under a death sentence.

But unlike Akatugba, Ghassemi-Shall’s house was a two-minute walk from the Amnesty meetings at St. John’s Norway. And his wife, Antonella Mega, was in the room, leading the campaign to free him.

This fall marked the one-year anniversary of Ghassemi-Shall’s release from prison and return home to Toronto.

Now a strong advocate for others still wrongfully imprisoned in Iran, Ghassemi-Shall will open the Beaches Amnesty write-a-thon by speaking about his own experience.

Ghassemi-Shall’s release has been a huge boost for the Beaches Amnesty group, said long-time volunteer Dr. Don Payne.

“Often, when we write for Amnesty, we write for people we don’t know and will never see,” said Payne. “We have a real person here.”

“It’s certainly something to put a face to someone you’ve been writing letters for, and to recognize the others we write for are real people too, that have their lives, their families.”

While Amnesty does run email campaigns and online petitions, Payne said the tradition of gathering to write paper letters still has power.

“When a lot come in, they tend to pile up,” he said. “They can’t be ignored — the content can be ignored, but the fact is they’re arriving.”

“They really measure that people are paying attention.”

The Beaches chapter of Amnesty International will host Write for Rights starting at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 9 at St. John’s Norway Church, 470 Woodbine Avenue.


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