Hamid Ghassemi arrived home to Toronto as a free man last Thursday, October 10. The dual citizen had been in Iranian detention since his 2008 arrest, accused of espionage along with his brother, a former navy officer, Alborz Ghassemi-Shall. The two spent years in Tehran’s Evin prison.
Al Jazeera sat down with Ghassemi and discussed his time in prison.
Al Jazeera: Hamid, what was it like when you got the news that you were able to come to Canada?
Hamid Ghassemi: I was happy to leave prison but I wasn’t happy with the judgment of the court. They promised us exoneration but they didn’t do that.
AJ: Take us back to the beginning.
HG: I used to go back to visit my family every year. And this time when I went, a few days later, they arrested my brother, a retired naval officer. He was working for a private company as a mechanical engineer. He applied for a passport to travel for work. He got a phone call saying the letter he needed was ready and to pick it up in order to get his passport.
When he went, he got arrested. They were asking weird questions; whether he could introduce them to people who were anti-government. My brother wasn’t involved with any kind of anti-government activity like that so he refused.
The same night, they came to my mom’s house and took a lot of my documents; my high school papers, photo album, and my passports.
When I went to follow up on my brothers case, it was 2 weeks before I was to leave back home to Canada. I had to cancel my ticket and in order to do so, I needed my passport. When I went to collect it next door, all of a sudden 5 big guys surrounded me, saying they’ve got a few questions with regards to my brother. It was 9 in the morning and they’d bring me back by 12. I thought if there was any way to help my brother’s arrest.
We got into a car and when we stopped, they blindfolded me and took me into a building. They gave me special clothing to wear and they took me to a solitary cell. An hour later, they took me to the interrogation room and started to interrogate me.
Within 8 months, we were under a tremendous amount of psychological pressure - I would call it torture. They handcuff you with one hand, and give you a piece off paper to write on with the other. And this hand is cuffed for at least 8 hours, sometimes up to 15 hours...
And they got rough during these 8 months - they started beating me and my brother. They couldn’t get any confession from either one of us. All they had was a piece of paper that to someone who knows nothing about the internet looked like an email. To me, it looked so ridiculous, a piece of paper on which they typed two addresses and a subject, with a message that I was trying to get information from my brother while he was in service. I declined it. And I rejected any kind of connection with the government, organisation or group. They wouldn’t accept that.
In the end we went to trial, in front of a judge who has no proper education as far as I am concerned. I asked him for a couple of experts to get their opinion, but he wouldn’t listen.
They got to a point where they got a confession from my brother, because he got beaten by the security forces, and he said he might have seen that email in the inbox but didn’t act on it nor tell anyone. They used that confession against us. The judge said even if the evidence was fabricated, there was a confession. But if you confess to something that doesn’t exist, what kind of legal weight does it have?
They charged me with espionage.
AJ: What kept you going?
HG: I really wanted to help my brother. But the trick they use is to say "we want to help you, so if you write what we are telling you, dictate it to you, and we’ll drop you off at the same place we picked you up". Some people do that and when they go to trial, there’s a confession. They say if you confess, there’s no need for evidence. So they get [a] confession through torture and use it against you. Most of the judges don’t even listen to you.
AJ: Take me back to your days in prison
HG: I thought if I helped out, we’d be out in a week or two. Day by day would pass and the interrogator wouldn’t let us go. They’d go on and on about the same questions. I was really trying not to lose my hope but somehow, sometimes, I would lose it. In solitary, there’s a light outside, it shines right into your face, 24 hours a day, and you have to either blindfold yourself with your t-shirt or go under the blanket to get some rest - those are the times I would really lose hope. But then I’d think about my family, my wife, my sister, my mother, why I’m there, and that would keep me going. I kept holding my chin up.
AJ: Did you know your wife (Antonella Mega) was campaigning for your release?
HG: I knew about it but not to what extent. You can’t. We would get a visitation every week for 20 minutes - my sister used to come - but there was a camera, someone present with a tape recorder, taping our conversation, so we couldn’t say anything. We could not talk about how they treated us, the food, or why we were arrested. We were not given any kind of news - no newspaper, radio, or TV. Just food, which wasn’t good and 3 blankets. It was really tough.
AJ: Do you think your release had anything to do with political changes in Iran?
HG: I’m not a politician, I hate politics. Me and my entire family are not into politics. But, it wasn’t a coincidence that the same day Dr. Rouhani went to New York, he was just about to land, and they let me out.
AJ: What do you plan to do now, clear your name?
HG: I’m not looking for revenge - my friends, my new friends, my wife, they know I'm innocent. And that’s enough for me. I told others too, that I wouldn’t do interviews if they would apologise to my brother.
AJ: They killed him?
HG: Absolutely. I have no doubt. He spent 29 years serving his country and then they do this to him? That’s injustice. That’s unfair. I hope it happens to them, to those two interrogators. I’m sure it will.
Antonella adds: The only difference is that we want a fair trial for them.
I want them to have a taste of their own medicine.
Five years in prison, 1.5 years in solitary. Imagine you’re in a room, just 4 walls. They’re your friends, you can talk to the walls, bang your head into them. Or you can be patient, don’t lose hope and look to the future. The sun is going to come from behind the clouds, and that’s what happened.