My Neighbour and the Death Penalty

By Aubrey Harris, Coordinator for the Campaign to Abolish the Death Penalty

My Neighbour: Hamid Ghassemi-Shall

I live in Toronto’s east end, a neighbourhood known as Leslieville. It’s between The Beach and Riverdale (where Degrassi was set). My neighbourhood is typically urban. There are a lot of streetcars, buses and older houses. The local elementary school is old enough to have an honour roll of former students who paid with their lives during the Great War and World War II. I didn’t grow up here (I grew up in London, ON) – but I quite like this neighbourhood – and I’ve lived in a few around Toronto.

A few years ago I had the honour of taking on a role with Amnesty International Canada, as the English-Speaking Branch Coordinator for the Campaign to Abolish the Death Penalty. If I hadn’t taken on that role I would probably have continued my main contributions to Amnesty International – a small donation each month and writing faxes, emails and letters to support Urgent Actions for people at risk of execution or other violation of their rights.

Taking on the role I knew I would take on a liasion job. I would be the connection for many Canadian members and the International Secretariat in the UK. I would have to reach out to connect with other Canadian NGOs who also work on the death penalty and justice issues. I would be a subject matter expert for some things. What I did not anticipate though, was finding out that a neighbour would be facing the death penalty.

As far as I know, I never met Hamid Ghassemi-Shall – but I never shopped for shoes in The Beach. The Beach is one of the most popular regions of the city though – little boutiques make it one of those places everyone walks their dog, pushes strollers, enjoys the sun on a patio and runs into old friends. Hamid could pass you on the street today and you would probably not think anything unusual. If you had gone into his shop you would have found a guy with a broad smile offering to help you find a pair of shoes.

Like many of us, Hamid came to Canada from another country. He met and fell in love with Antonella Mega. They have a house just a few blocks from where I live. But when I say they, one half is missing. Hamid has not been home with his wife for nearly five years. Instead Hamid has faced the horror of a politically set-up death sentence. A Canadian, a neighbour, facing execution on trumped-up charges.

Whether you are for or against the death penalty, if you are Canadian, Hamid’s story must strike a chord. Hamid is a Canadian citizen who worked in a small business. His elderly mother had health issues. Like any dutiful son he visited his mum when she was sick. In Hamid’s case, that meant traveling to Iran, where he was born. While on that visit to his mother, his brother was arrested and charged with ‘espionage.’ The Iranian government couldn’t charge espionage without someone to send information to – so they picked-up Hamid and his own horror began.

Iran’s Record of Human Rights Abuse

Iran’s record on human rights abuse is extensive. Amnesty International’s annual 2012 report on human rights found that in Iran political suspects were “frequently convicted, sometimes in the absence of defence lawyers, on the basis of ‘confessions’ or other information allegedly obtained under torture during pre-trial detention. Courts accepted such ‘confessions’ as evidence without investigating how they were obtained.”  At trial Hamid was convicted on the basis of an “email exchange” – the evidence of which was tested and analysed by his lawyer and shown to be a complete fabrication. In January 2010 Hamid’s brother died in prison, reportedly of stomach cancer. Despite reviews by Iranian courts Hamid`s death sentence has not been lifted. His life is quite literally at risk of being taken by a regime known for secret executions (and public executions), the execution of minors and of countless political opponents.

Not long after Hamid’s conviction I met Antonella, his very brave wife. Antonella gets limited communications from her husband. As you can imagine, an Iranian prison is not a place where phones are provided to each “guest” – it is a hard place where torture and deaths in custody are routine and a country which is second only to China in the total number of executions in recent years.

2012 Report on Death Penalty

Amnesty International has just released our Annual Report on the death penalty. The new report covers statistics and important developments over 2012. The Statistics from 2012 on Iran are not good. There were at least 314 officially recognised executions in Iran in 2012 – of which 71% were for ‘drugs offences’ (which like political crimes, are not lethal crimes and outside of international law in terms of crimes that may be capital.

The continued existence of the death penalty is what enables regimes like that in Iran to literally exterminate political opposition and to keep citizens in fear for their lives from the government. Execution of a human being is not an authority anyone should have – whether individual or the state. This is why international efforts to abolish the death penalty are so important.

Canada and the Death Penalty

Canada has fallen surprisingly short on such efforts since 2006. When the United Nations General Assembly first held a call for a universal moratorium on executions with a view to abolition, Canada was widely expected to not only vote in favour, but to join all other long-term abolitionist countries in co-sponsoring the document before the vote. In 2012, the fourth of these calls was made. Again Canada, while voting in favour, refused to co-sponsor. An important gesture of support that costs nothing for the Canadian government to endorse.

A recent Angus-Reid opinion survey of Canadian opinion on the death penalty reveals that many hold conflicting opinions of capital punishment and the majority hold beliefs that are not supported by the facts. While a majority appeared to support hypothetical reintroduction, a strong majority also preferred life without parole over a death penalty. The reasons cited supporting reintroduction also fail to concur with the facts: “deterrence” (58%)and “saving money” (57%) – yet in decades of study, the death penalty has not been proven to have any deterrent value greater than a prison sentence and in practice the death penalty has been found to be grossly more costly then even life without the possibility of parole.

The true face of the death penalty is exposed in the annual report from Amnesty International.

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