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Local human rights activist overwhelmed by hometown support

'There needs to be a strong voice,' said Simcoe North MP Bruce Stanton, who urges local citizens to increase pressure on the federal government

Karen Spring looked out on a crowd of at least 150 people gathered in Elmvale Community Hall with tears in her eyes, overwhelmed by the support of her hometown.

“It means a lot to see so many people from the community where I grew up come out and support this,” said Spring, who was part of a panel on Sunday hosted by the Springs and in connection with the newly-formed Simcoe County Honduras Rights Monitor.

She was there to speak for her partner, Edwin Espinal, who was thousands of miles away in a prison in Honduras, and for the dozens more political prisoners incarcerated in horrific and inhumane conditions without due process.

“The conditions [in the prison] are seen as punishment, and are used to terrorize Hondurans,” said Spring. “These men are there for political reasons, they are not there because they’ve been convicted of anything.”

Spring has been living and working in Honduras since 2009. She’s the Honduras-based coordinator for the Honduras Solidarity Network, which formed after a 2009 military coup kidnapped and ousted a democratically elected president and replaced him with a president of their choosing.

“Millions of Hondurans went into the streets in protest to defend their vote,” said Spring.

The Honduran military implemented a curfew banning citizens from leaving their homes for any reason between the hours of 6 p.m. and 6 a.m.

“It was terror. The streets were bare, and you would wake up to news about what happened the night before,” said Spring.

Peaceful protesters and bystanders were being shot in the street. Espinal was arrested on false charges and sent to prison indefinitely without a trial.

Spring last heard from Espinal on Thursday. At the time, there was an uprising in the prison and the military was called in to deal with it. The phone system was cut off when the military entered the prison.

Spring left Honduras a couple weeks ago, and, on her way home, immigration agents informed her there was a migration flag on her passport. There was no reason listed for the flag, and eventually she was released to go home. She doesn’t know if she will be allowed back into Honduras or why there is a flag on her passport. Her letters to the Canadian government about the flag have gone unanswered.

She has a house, cats and a bank account in Honduras. It is her home. To not be allowed back would be “devastating.”

“The country began spiralling [after the 2009 coup], said Spring.

Since then, Spring says the spiralling has continued as human rights are increasingly disregarded and abused.

“The more I’ve seen it spiral, the more I’ve seen Canada take the wrong position every time,” she said.

Tyler Shipley, a professor at York University and Humber College, was there to speak more about Canada’s role in Honduran conflict and human rights abuses. He used the 2009 military coup as a case study in Canadian foreign policy. He has known both Karen Spring and Edwin Espinal for years, working alongside them to spread awareness about political corruption in Honduras.

“We must hold ourselves accountable,” said Shipley. “Canada has played a huge role in the conflict in Honduras.”

From the 2009 coup to now there have been two more elections in Honduras. According to Shipley they have not been fair or democratic. The last election, held in November of 2017 was the worst offender.

Following each election, said Shipley, Canada congratulated the Honduran government for holding a “fair election” and “helping the country move forward.”

“Canada, throughout this process, has taken the side of the military,” said Shipley. “Canada had an opportunity nine years ago to take a stand for human rights. The government decided it was more important to support [capital] interests, which benefited from a military government. This had a disastrous effect on the people who lived there.”

Canadian companies are the largest investors in Honduras (to the tune of $600 million a year). Montreal-based Gildan is the single largest employer in the country. According to Shipley, the workers at Gildan sweatshops face deplorable conditions. Mining companies like Gold Corp also operate out of Honduras, and there’s a growing timeshare tourism industry marketed to Canadian consumers.

Karen Spring’s mother, Janet, took to the podium to update the crowd on the campaign to free the political prisoners in Honduras. She, with the support of the local community, has been constantly reaching out to every official with a role in Honduras including to Chrystia Freeland of Global Affairs Canada, the Honduran ambassador to Canada, the Canadian ambassador to Honduras, her local MPs, and Honduran authorities.

Janet Spring, a professor at Lakehead University in Orillia, told the crowd the Canadian government sends approximately $34 million a year in aid to Honduras, much of which is channeled through government institutions and further supports the military rule in the country.

She encouraged the crowd to join her, Karen Spring and Rights Action director Grahame Russell, as a delegation to Honduras this June.

Other speakers at the meeting included local politicians Mayor Bill French, Deputy Mayor Don Allen, Simcoe-North MP Bruce Stanton and Barrie-Springwater-Oro-Medonte MP Alex Nutall. Each politician encouraged their constituents to keep up the fight and promised to help put pressure on the Canadian government to stand up for human rights in Honduras and demand the political prisoners – including Espinal – be freed.

“Let’s stand with the Spring family, and do everything we can to put pressure on the Canadian Government. There needs to be a stronger voice,” said Stanton.

Nutall said Canada should leverage the millions in foreign aid to push Honduras to end human rights abuses.

“Our dollars should not be going to countries that are terrorizing their citizens,” he said. “We are propping up regimes that are abusing people.”

Attendees were encouraged to sign a letter going to the Honduran government as well as one going to Global Affairs Canada.

Anyone who wants to add their voice to the campaign to free political prisoners in Honduras is encouraged to write a letter to their MPs demanding the government of Canada support human rights and the rule of law in Honduras.

Donations can be made to a trust fund under Janet Spring’s name at any TD Bank under the branch number 2400 and account 6339776. The money will go directly to the Honduran Political Prisoner’s Fund to help take care of the prisoner’s families.

If you wish to receive a tax receipt, donations can be made through Rights Action.

You can also sign up to participate in the Canadian delegation to Honduras happening this June. The group will be visiting the UN high commissioner’s office, Honduran authorities and the La Tolva prison where Espinal is held captive.

For more about the political prisoners and what you can do to push for their release, visit the Simcoe County Honduras Rights Monitor website.

Read more about Espinal's story on CollingwoodToday

Erika Engel

About the Author: Erika Engel

Erika regularly covers all things news in Collingwood as a reporter, photographer and community editor.
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