At the altar of St. John Norway Anglican Church on Woodbine, Antonella Mega, dark wisps of hair escaping the new bob framing her careworn face, holds a giant poster of her smiling husband’s face.
The picture is faded and peeling at the edges, but it’s all she has left of him now, in year five of his incarceration in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison, where Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi was killed in 2003.
The event is a May 27 Amnesty International Toronto vigil for the release of Toronto shoe salesman Hamid Ghassemi-Shall, originally from Iran, who flew home in 2008 to visit his ailing mother and was arrested on charges of espionage.
According to AI, the conviction, which carries the death penalty, appears to be based on an alleged email exchange between Hamid and his brother Alborz, which authorities say demonstrated cooperation with a banned opposition group – an email Hamid Ghassemi-Shall maintains is a sheer fabrication.
Arborz died in prison in 2010, reportedly of stomach cancer, though Mega says a post-mortem also showed evidence of head trauma.
Amnesty International has called for Ghassemi-Shall’s release or a fair trial – a seeming impossibility in today’s Iran – and is circulating a petition. The Canadian government, which broke off relations with Iran in 2012, has appealed to the regime for clemency.
Meanwhile, the exhausted Mega is working frantically for her husband’s release. She maintains a website (freeHamid.org), hands out postcards, writes countless letters and was only prevented from travelling to Iran to throw herself on the mercy of the regime by the denial of a visa.
At the church, she tells the crowd of 60, “I believe Hamid will come home – I am not going to give up.”
The next speaker is Marina Nemat, author of Prisoner Of Tehran, a memoir recounting her arrest at 16, incarceration and torture by whipping in Evin, her death sentence, release and eventual flight to Canada.
Nemat, whose book won the EU’s Human Dignity Prize, tells the assembled the worst part of her suffering was the feeling that “the world didn’t give a damn” – one reason, she says, she’s determined this won’t happen to Ghassemi-Shall. “I have dedicated my life to making sure Iran’s political prisoners won’t be forgotten.”
After the speeches, the audience troops down to the church basement for cheese and cookies and the signing of a message to the PM. Says Mega, “I was touched to see old friends and new who care as much about Hamid as I do.”