It was one of those days at the 2010 UN annual summit. Canada had just lost its bid for a Security Council seat. Numerous world leaders and foreign ministers were lining up to make their pitches to international ears. Editors were calling for copy.
But the woman on the other end of my cell phone was insistent: “my friend is desperate,” she said. “She’s in New York and has to meet you. Her husband is in jail in Iran.”
Reluctantly, I gave in. And shortly sat across a Midtown Starbucks table from a weary, 40-something woman whose face was a portrait of anguish.
It was my first meeting with Antonella Mega, a woman whose courage and steely determination I came to admire over the next three horrifically turbulent years.
Antonella was in New York to deliver a plea to Iran’s then hard line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. A man more given to murderous edicts than mercy. But she was making a last ditch effort to reach the authorities who had so unaccountably thrown her Canadian-Iranian husband Hamid Ghassemi-Shall in jail in Tehran while he was visiting his widowed, ailing mother in 2008.
Ahmadinejad, meanwhile, was enjoying the “peace and tranquility” of the local Hilton across the street from the UN, protected, ironically, by well-armed, burly American security men. Antonella was no match for their brawn.
But she did not give up. Travelling back and forth to Ottawa she tirelessly bid for the government’s attention. She pleaded for meetings with Iranian embassy officials who rebuffed her efforts to get a visa for Tehran.
Meanwhile, Hamid was condemned to death by a kangaroo court on espionage charges and put on death row. Apparently the result of a vendetta against his brother, a retired naval officer who may have fallen afoul of someone in a position of power in the labyrinthine clerical regime.
Hope for a diplomatic solution plummeted when Canada closed its Iranian embassy, and Iran’s envoys packed up their Ottawa office. Antonella soldiered on, appealing for help to the Italians who took over Canada’s diplomatic duties in Tehran.
She appeared at rallies and Amnesty meetings to keep Hamid’s name in public view. She learned rudimentary Farsi to communicate with his relatives. She wrote letters and wore out her keyboard with messages pleading for support. It was, she admitted, “a full time job” that sapped her health and strength. The prison bars that confined Hamid cast dark shadows over her life.
Now, exactly three years later, her heroic efforts – and those of back channel diplomacy -- have paid off. Astonishingly, Hamid is free. And in New York, a new Iranian president has made his UN debut, promising a new era in international co-operation. For Antonella, the vicious circle is broken. Against all odds, the circle is squared.
Olivia Ward has covered conflicts, politics and human rights from the former Soviet Union to the Middle East and South Asia.