A Conversation with Antonella Mega – Hamid Ghassemi-Shall’s Wife

Sima Sahar Zerehi – “It was in the summer of 1994 or ‘۹۵, I used to be better with dates but this situation has made me worse. Anyway, I’m not the romantic one, Hamid is,” chuckles Antonella Mega nervously as she recounts how she met her husband Hamid Ghassemi-Shall, an Iranian-Canadian man on death row in Tehran’s Evin prison. 

In May 2008, while visiting his elderly mother in Iran, Hamid and his bother Alborz were arrested and charged with espionage.  The evidence used against them was an email exchanged between the two brothers, which both deny having sent or received.

It’s been four years since Antonella has seen her husband but her affection and commitment is palpable in the way she speaks.

“We were both younger and dashing. We met at Calderone shoe store at the Eaton Centre in Toronto. He was fairly new to the country; I’m an immigrant myself.  I was looking for a pair of sling backs, it was summer, we struck up a conversation and afterwards I gave him my business card.  He called me that night and we were married in 1996,” recounts Antonella.

Antonella’s voice lights up when she talks about her husband “Hamid is a gentle and kind person, it sounds common place to say these things but it’s true.  When I met him I saw all these qualities in him right away and when I got to know him I found out that all those things that I thought about him were true.”

“He’s a typical Iranian man, a very social guy who likes to laugh, loves chess, and enjoys sports.  We enjoyed rollerblading, and biking, and we were avid wind surfers”.

“Hamid likes shoes, that’s why he started out in the shoe business, he has a lot of shoes maybe around 20 pairs,” teases Antonella.

“He’s also a family man.  We were looking to start a family just before all this started”.

Her voice changes as she transitions from memories of happier times to the details of his arrest.  “It all happened shortly after he arrived in Iran to visit his mother,” explains Antonella.

“His brother Alborz had applied for an Iranian passport a few months earlier. He was called-in to pick it up; he went to the appointment and then disappeared. A few days after that the authorities, I don’t even know which authorities, searched Hamid’s mother’s house and seized all their documents and everybody’s passports. My husband’s Iranian and Canadian passports were both confiscated.  Hamid went to a Canadian consulate and asked what he should do.  They told him that Iran won’t recognize his Canadian passport and won’t let him exit without his Iranian passport. So he went to the Iranian authorities to enquire about his documents, a few days later they called and told him his passport was ready to be picked up. He went after it and disappeared like his brother.”

Antonella, who was in Canada at the time, heard the story second hand from Hamid’s family members.  “I heard about what happened several hours later, when it was clear to his family that he wasn’t coming home. I immediately called the Canadian consulate in Iran, they’ve been building the file on Hamid’s case ever since.”

“Days after his initial disappearance they allowed him a brief phone call to his family.  So we knew he was being held but we didn’t know who was holding him, why, and where,” explains Antonella.

“۱۸ months later we found out that he was in Evin prison, although that was not where he was the whole time, for a year he was somewhere else but nobody knows where he was.”

Taking a deep breath to steady her voice, Antonella describes the conditions of her husband’s time in prison.  “During the first 18 months that I didn’t have contact with him he was subjected to torture; solitary confinement in a small dark place, sensory deprivation, he didn’t see daylight for many months, he was beaten.”

She adds, “It’s likely that he was subjected to a forced confession, he might have confessed to something; the authorities claim that he made a confession.  I hope that Hamid and Alborz confessed quickly because you know it gets worse if they resist.”

At this point, she stops talking and I stop typing, the silence is heavy with dark thoughts and images, with stories we’ve both heard about torture and forced confessions.

Antonella, who hasn’t been able to travel to Iran to visit her husband, has had to piece together the details of his case through conversations with lawyers and family members as well as her brief and infrequent calls with Hamid from jail.  To date much of what’s happened to her husband behind the prison walls remains a mystery.

Speaking about her communication with her husband over these four years she states, “He’s allowed to make phone calls to me sporadically, I don’t know the time or day, they are brief, two to three, maybe four minutes, some are five minutes, one or two calls have been longer over the past 3 years.”

“They’re excruciating calls,” she confesses. “I don’t know what to say to make him feel better. But, what do you say to someone who knows he hasn’t done anything to deserve a prison sentence?  He’s seen his brother virtually die in front of him

I keep on saying the same things: I’m talking to people who can help you, I’m speaking to journalists, and I’ve received letters of support.  What do you say? What do you say? What do you say?” repeats Antonella as her voice strains with exasperation.

“The only thing that I can say to make him feel better is that I’m coming with a key to free you and take you home,” concludes Antonella.

She pauses briefly apologizing unnecessarily for her getting emotional and continues, “About a year into Hamid’s imprisonment, he was taken out of solitary confinement.  He didn’t know where he was and whom he was talking to. He was put in front of a judge who asked him if he had an Italian wife.  That was the only question he was asked.  Afterwards he was sentenced to death. His lawyer tried to appeal the ruling.”

“In November 2009 I was notified of the death sentence and that the Supreme Court had upheld the death sentence. That was also when we learned that he was transferred to section 350 of Evin prison,” states Antonella.

“Once again his lawyer petitioned to reopen the case based on invalid evidence.  In May 2010, two years after his arrest we found out that they rejected the petition to open the case, they also informed us that Hamid was no longer facing execution but a sentence of life in prison.”

Antonella’s voice takes on a mechanical tone as she chronicles her husband’s legal proceedings, this is a story she’s told a thousand times to journalists, community groups, politicians and supporters.  Despite the fatigue in her voice she continues, taking care to point out the critical details.

“When we heard that execution was off the table, his lawyer proceeded to ask for amnesty and filed an application for his release.  In the middle of February 2011 the amnesty commission turned down the application for his release.”

“But it doesn’t end there,” Antonella explains, unable to disguise the sense of incredulity from her voice, “all of a sudden they said they want to execute him again.”

Just when all seemed hopeless, Hamid’s case takes another unexpected turn.

“On the last day of February 2011 they informed me that they are not going to hang Hamid on the next day.  Once again I received a call from Hamid’s sister that the death sentence was not an option and the file was cancelled and that Hamid was going to face life in prison.”

“With life in prison there are options,” explains Antonella and adds, “We can petition to have the sentence reduced through clemency for example.”

“Once again his lawyer tried for a re-trial on the basis that they hadn’t evaluated the evidence. We had court appointed technical experts ready to testify to the fact that the evidence was invalid, but they were not permitted to present their findings,” laments Antonella.

Hearing about all these petitions and legal attempts to free Hamid, I ask Antonella about her husband’s access to lawyers.

She exclaims, “The question is not so much about if Hamid’s been afforded a lawyer.  We’ve consulted four lawyers so far.  Hamid’s second lawyer is in the same cell as him in Evin.  We can’t contact his third lawyer anymore and the fourth lawyer has reached a wall, despite the fact that he’s a very well respected member of the legal community in Iran.”

She adds, “The legal system there is very different from here.  In Iran there’s no burden of proof.  Therefore, what’s the role of the lawyer if they are not even presented with the evidence leading to an arrest or conviction?”

Since his arrest in 2008 Antonella has been single handedly leading the campaign to free her husband.   She notes, “This has been a tumultuous event for his family and I.  It has forced us to become activists. I was never an activist, but my eyes are peeled open now.”

She goes on, “Hamid was not an activist either, I wish he was, look at the situation we’re in, we need activists and their expertise now.”

Despite her lack of knowledge regarding organizing, in the past Antonella has been able to raise Hamid’s profile in the media and attract political attention towards his case.

She explains, “I started with the Canadian government in 2008 because it just made sense. He’s Canadian and they needed to help and they have the power to help. I’ve been doing everything that I can to fight for his release.  My hope was that diplomatic talks would take place behind the scenes, but I really don’t know what’s happening in the background.  To be honest, I don’t know why we are where we are.  I’m just a little wife here, caught between a rock and a hard place.”

Despite her modesty, Antonella has accomplished a great deal.  She’s set up a website and blog at www.freehamid.org, an online petition, travelled from city to city to build awareness about his case, and spearheaded a letter writing campaign. Through her efforts, organizations like Amnesty International have become aware of Hamid’s case and launched a postcard campaign for his release.  In 2010 Antonella even tried unsuccessfully to deliver a letter to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the Iranian president asking for intervention in her husband’s case.

“Since 2008 my main focus has been to bring my husband home. I’m trying everything. I’m trying to create a diplomatic dialogue.”

Antonella talks candidly about the difficulties of organizing the campaign for her husband’s release.  “Financially I’m incurring debt from trying to sustain my ability to take time off work for outreach and media work and to pay for the campaign and legal costs.  It’s very expensive for me to travel, so I’ve orchestrated a scrapbook campaign that allows people from across Canada to learn about Hamid’s story and get involved.  The scrapbook contains pictures and letters that explain Hamid’s case and they give people a chance to hear his story even when I’m not there.”

This past week Antonella met with Diane Ablonczy, the Minister of Consular affairs.  Following that meeting, a letter was issued by minister Ablonczy and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, calling on the Iranian government to save Hamid Ghassemi-Shall’s life.

While Hamid is facing unspeakable hardships in prison, Antonella and Hamid’s family have also been through many trials since his arrest.

“The family in Iran is stressed,” admits Antonella, “We are all facing these challenges together. Hamid’s younger sister, Mahin, passed away two weeks ago, following a surgery and as you know his older brother Alborz passed away in January 2010.”

With Mahin’s passing, Antonella has lost not only a friend and confidant but also her link to Hamid’s family.  “Now I can’t even communicate with his family,” explains Antonella, “Mahin spoke some basic English and even though her English was limited, I felt a bond, I feel that bond with his mother but we can’t really talk, with Mahin we had developed our own way of talking. I felt like I had family support through her, it was a way to cope.  Without Mahin, I’m trying to develop my own way of talking to his other siblings and mom through my own very basic Farsi but it’s hard.”

After four hard years, Antonella still remains optimistic about her husband’s future.  “I’m still hopeful that he can come home, yes Hamid will come home,” she states emphatically.

She adds, “The prosecutor has complete control of Hamid’s file, he has leeway to release my husband, he has that capability, so we can’t give up.”

When asked what people can do to support her husband’s campaign, she states, “I encourage people to sign the petition on our website, as well as the Amnesty International postcards, they are efficient and effective, you just put your name, address or city, they are already addressed to the Iranian ambassador in Ottawa.  It also helps to write to the Iranian authorities, hand written letters are best as they are seen as more credible.  The letter doesn’t have to be long, in fact it should be concise and respectful.”

This past week Hamid was called to the circuit court in charge of carrying out and scheduling sentencing, he is in imminent risk of facing execution.