Daily Brew

Canadians’ release from Egyptian custody celebrated while other Canadians languish in shadows

Daily Brew

It's good that Dr. Tarek Loubani and filmmaker John Greyson are coming home to Canada soon after almost two months in an overcrowded, bug-infested Egyptian prison cell.

But the publicity surrounding their detention and release has overshadowed the homecoming of another Canadian held for much longer and under far harsher conditions in Iran, and largely without the PR machine that helped keep their story alive.

Hamid Ghassemi-Shall, who was facing death as a convicted spy after being arrested in 2009, returned home to Toronto on Thursday . He was among 80 prisoners freed last month as new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani sought to project his more moderate image to the world.

"It’s great to be home, to my real home,” Ghassemi-Shall, who came to Canada following the Iranian revolution, told the Globe and Mail. “I’m trying to get my life back together from where I left 64 months ago.”

He's one of more than 1,600 Canadians imprisoned abroad as of August, according to Foreign Affairs Department figures reported by the National Post.

[Related: Greyson, Loubani on way to Canada after Egypt release ]

Most are accused criminals in U.S. jails but a few are political prisoners held in places like China and Iran, whose stories may flare briefly in the media but then languish in the shadows.

Who remembers Huseyincan Celil? A Canadian Muslim from China's Uyghur ethnic minority, he was arrested in 2006 on terrorism charges while visiting family in Uzbekistan and deported to neighbouring China, which jailed him for supporting Uyghur separatists. The Post said Canadian diplomats have challenged his imprisonment but that hasn't stopped the strengthening economic relationship between Canada and China.

Ghassemi-Shall had gone back to Iran for what he thought would be a brief visit with his mother, the Toronto Star said. Instead, he was arrested and accused of being part of a conspiracy with his brother against the regime.

He was taken to the notorious Evin Prison, where Iranian-Canadian photographer Zahra Kazemi was tortured and beaten to death. Ghassemi-Shall's brother died there in custody, the Star said.

Consular Affairs Minister Lynne Yelich said in a statement Ottawa had “worked tirelessly with partners and allies for his release," but pointed out other Canadians are still being held in Iran.

[ Related: Man returns to Canada after years on death row in Iran ]

Web developer Saeed Malekpour, another Evin inmate, was sentenced to death in 2010 on accusations software he'd developed had been used to post pornographic images on the Internet, says Amnesty International Canada. Malekpour said he confessed under torture. The sentence supposedly has been commuted to life imprisonment.

Iranian-Canadian Hossein Derackhshan, an internationally known blogger whose work appeared in the Washington Post, Newsweek and the Guardian, was arrested in 2008 and sentenced to 19 1/2 years in prison, supposedly for collaborating with Iran's enemies and "insulting religion," according to Amnesty International.

Campaigns to win their freedom continue but efforts are complicated by the fact Canadian-Iranian relations are in a deep freeze, with embassies closed and no official contact between the two governments.

Certainly they've received nothing like the high-level intervention accorded Loubani and Greyson, including a talk between Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and his Egyptian counterpart.

The two where caught up in the violence following the military coup against the Islamist government of Mohammed Morsi, which triggered a backlash from his Muslim Brotherhood followers.

The Canadians had stopped in Cairo on the way to Gaza where Loubani, a London, Ont., ER doctor, was going to work in a hospital and Greyson planned to document the work. They were observing a demonstration by Morsi supporters and Loubani was helping those injured in clashes with police and soldiers. They were arrested when they asked police for directions back to their hotel.

Their detention without charge became a cause célèbre in Canada, where both are veteran activists. From prison, they reported being beaten, having their heads shaved and being forced to sleep on the concrete floor of the overcrowded cell like sardines.

[ Related: John Greyson, Tarek Loubani say thanks in new video from Egypt ]

A video posted this week after their release showed both had lost weight from their seven-week ordeal. Some critics argued Loubani and Greyson brought the misery on themselves by being protest "tourists."

Retired Canadian diplomat Gar Pardy told the Post that based on his experience, Loubani and Greyson fared pretty well, considering the country is in turmoil.

“The Egyptian authorities were being fairly co-operative with the two," said Pardy. "People in the Cairo embassy were in contact with them on a regular basis;they could bring in medical help.

“The two got pretty good local legal assistance . . . they seem to be trying to work the system as well as they can."

We may hear a lot more from them once they get home.

As for Ghassemi-Shall, he's savouring his freedom.

“At last I can breathe in a country that doesn’t arrest people first, then collect the evidence later," he told the Star.

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