How a rural Ontario town helped free a Honduran human rights activist from prison

Toronto

After surviving 19 months in a Honduran maximum security prison and a nearly four-year legal fight, Honduran human rights activist Edwin Espinal was absolved of all charges last week. The decision followed a lengthy campaign by his in-laws in the town of Elmvale, Ont., about 120 kilometres north of Toronto, featuring two billboards calling him "Elmvale's Edwin Espinal."

Edwin Espinal, left, and co-accused Raul Alvares, right, are seen outside a Honduran courthouse on Sept. 17, 2021, when they were found not guilty of all charges related to political protests in Honduras. Espinal, jailed for 19 months, was the subject of a publicity campaign in Elmvale, Ont., where his wife was raised. (Submitted by Karen Spring)

After surviving 19 months in a Honduran maximum security prison and a nearly four-year legal fight, "Elmvale's Edwin Espinal" is finally free.

Espinal, a Honduran human rights activist arrested and jailed during anti-government protests in his native country in January 2018, is featured on two billboards near the town in Simcoe County, about 120 kilometres north of Toronto. The signs — one erected on Highway 90 in 2018, the other on Highway 92 in 2019 — call him "Elmvale's Edwin Espinal" and implore drivers to "free political prisoners" and "stand up for human rights."

Though Espinal himself has never been to Canada, his wife, Karen Spring, grew up in Elmvale. Her mother, Janet Spring, launched the local campaign to free her son-in-law after he was arrested with hundreds of others who took to the streets, angry with the country's presidential election results, which they viewed as fraudulent.

Espinal was charged alongside another protester, Raul Alvares, whom he'd never met before, for allegedly damaging property and arson. If found guilty, they would have faced a minimum of 12 years in prison, according to Karen. But with no evidence, the National Territorial Jurisdiction Court absolved them both on Friday — a huge relief, she said.

This billboard near Barrie, Ont., calling for Espinal and other prisoners to be released, was provided free of charge by the advertising company.(Lorenda Reddekopp/CBC)

Espinal was released on bail in August 2019 after 19 months in pre-trial custody where he said he wasn't allowed phone calls, pens or books, and was given little food.

"In Honduras there's well-documented corruption inside the judiciary," Karen told CBC News in a video call with her husband from the capital of Tegucigalpa where they live. "And so we were really worried that it was going to be another kangaroo court that would toe the line of the government."

Espinal says that what helped him and Alvares win was international pressure, stemming from Janet's campaigning in rural Ontario. Eventually, it led to elected officials in Canada advocating for his release.

"I feel very, very grateful with all the Simcoe County people because they support us a lot and that makes a huge difference," Espinal said. "I feel much better now, but all this process is not done yet."

He says he's now waiting to see if prosecutors will appeal the verdict.

Espinal and his wife, Karen Spring, together in Honduras. Spring's mother, Janet, spearheaded the Elmvale campaign to free her son-in-law. (Submitted by Karen Spring)

Work remains in Honduras

Kathy Price with Amnesty International Canada, which assisted Espinal, said supporters sent 9,000 messages to Honduras demanding that his rights be upheld and he receive impartial justice. She said it was all thanks to the "tireless campaign" of the Spring family.

"They have a community around them, a community of people who said, 'this is not OK and we are going to continue to raise our voices until there's justice,' " said Price, the human rights organization's Latin America campaigns co-ordinator.

"This story has a happy ending, but we need to renew our efforts to make sure that others are not facing what Edwin has."

The Honduran government uses arbitrary detention to suppress dissent, Price said, noting Espinal's release does not mean these tactics have changed.

Janet Spring says even though her son-in-law has been found not guilty, her community is continuing to support Hondurans.(Lorenda Reddekopp/CBC)

Back in Elmvale, Janet said the billboards will stay up until her son-in-law is able to make his first visit to Canada to see them for himself. Besides, she says, there's still work to be done.

Honduran communities are struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic and some are still recovering from last year's deadly hurricanes. The Simcoe County community has raised $18,000 to help, Janet said.

Karen and Espinal say they'll stay in Honduras for now to continue to stand up against corruption and push for Canada to denounce the current government.

"There are still people in prison for protesting," Karen said. "It's one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be an environmentalist, journalist, lawyer or land and human rights defender. And so Canada needs to stand up for human rights."

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