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Canadian groups want Edwin Espinal freed from Honduran jail

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Facebook photo via the Civic Council of Grassroots and Indigenous Organizations in Honduras (COPINH).

Edwin Espinal is a human rights defender who has been held at the high-security, military-run La Tolva prison in Honduras without trial since his arrest on January 19, 2018.

Orillia Matters reports, "Since 2009, Espinal has played an active role in advocating for human rights in Honduras."

2009 is key because it was on June 28 of that year that the Honduran army ousted then-president Manuel Zelaya and sent him into exile.

Tyler Shipley, the author of Ottawa and Empire: Canada and the Military Coup in Honduras, has commented, "The primary agents of the coup in Honduras were the oligarchy (a group of super rich families that dominate Honduran economic and political life) and the military."

He adds, "These forces wanted to stop the program of social reform undertaken by the Zelaya government (2006–2009) which was responding to an organized popular movement demanding change."

And Yves Engler has highlighted, "A number of major Canadian corporations, notably Gildan and Goldcorp, were unhappy with some modest social democratic reforms implemented by Zelaya."

Espinal is a member of the National People's Resistance Front, a broad-based coalition of grassroots organizations, political parties and movements opposed to the coup.

Avi Lewis recently tweeted, "It was almost 10 years ago that I interviewed Edwin Espinal in the street, right where his young wife had died in a sea of tear gas at a protest against the coup. He has sacrificed everything to fight for justice in Honduras."

Then came the November 26, 2017 election that allowed Juan Orlando Hernández, who came to power in 2013, to remain as the president of Honduras.

Orillia Matters notes, "In November 2017, an election fraught with allegations of corruption spurred a mass of protests as hundreds of thousands of Hondurans marched in protest of the government."

Collingwood Today adds, "Espinal was arrested after participating in city-wide protests."

That January 19, 2018 protest where Espinal was arrested took place about a week before Hernández was sworn into office on January 27, 2018.

The day after Espinal's arrest, COPINH, the group led by Honduran activist Berta Cáceres before she was murdered, posted (in Spanish), "Edwin Espinal is a recognized comrade in the struggle against the dictatorial regime imposed since the coup d'état in Honduras in 2009."

It then highlighted, "His capture obeys the orders of the dictator JOH [Juan Orlando Hernández] to repress, stigmatize and criminalize the dignified protest of the people who oppose the imposition of violence and surrender."

Collingwood Today has reported, "At a pre-trial hearing, Espinal was accused of many charges including terrorism." The Progressive adds, "Following his arrest, Espinal was taken before a military tribunal where human rights groups, such as Amnesty International, were barred from entering." In December 2018, CBC reported Espinal has "been charged with damaging property during protests."

In January 2019, a year after his arrest, CTV reported, "A trial date hasn't been set and there is a concern the process will be sped up and lead to a conviction."

On February 18 of this year, Peace Brigades International-Honduras Project attended the Supreme Court hearing for Espinal and Raúl Álvarez, another political prisoner who is also being held at La Tolva.

PBI-Honduras posted (in Spanish) on Facebook, "The Court ruled in favor of the defence, who argued that the original judge of the case, assigned exclusively in cases of organized crime, was incompetent. Due to this ruling, there will be a new trial and in this case with a competent judge."

In the meantime, Amnesty International has highlighted Espinal's deteriorating health as a result of being held in a prison "without adequate food, water, sanitation, medical attention or access to daylight and exercise." Because of an ear infection that went untreated by prison officials for almost a month, Espinal has now lost hearing in one ear.

Espinal's link to Canada is both political and personal.

Shipley has commented, "Canada prefers a government like the one that took over after the coup, which cracked down on popular protest, lifted the moratorium, and invited Canadian mining companies to help write the new mining code."

And in December 2018, CBC reported, "Espinal, 43, is the long-time partner of a Canadian originally from Elmvale, Karen Spring, 34."

Spring, the coordinator of the Honduras Solidarity Network who had previously worked for Rights Action in Guatemala, married Espinal in La Tolva prison on October 18, 2018.

Spring's parents, John and Janet, own a farm in Elmvale, which is situated about 120 kilometres north of Toronto. Janet is also a professor at Lakehead University in Orillia.

The Spring family has been active in trying to secure Espinal's release from prison.

But Orillia Matters notes, "The case of Espinal and the pleading of the Spring family hasn’t moved the Canadian government to step in."

The Simcoe County Honduras Rights Monitor committee, which the Spring family formed prior to Espinal's arrest, has stated, "Despite our pleas for support to Minister Freeland, Global Affairs, and PM Trudeau, we have been met with silence on Edwin's illegal arrest and the ongoing human rights abuses in Honduras."

In an interview last year with Collingwood Today, Karen Spring highlighted, "Our government is supporting the Honduran government that is assassinating its people in pro-democracy protests and throwing human rights defenders in jail."

Canadian groups including Rights Action, Amnesty International Canada, KAIROS: Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiative, the Barrie District Labour Council, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation Political Action Committee, the Ontario Federation of Labour, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, the Public Service Alliance of Canada, the Canadian Council for International Co-operation, and United Church of Canada have all been supportive of the efforts to free Espinal.

To add your name to the Amnesty International petition that calls on the government of Honduras to release Espinal pending a fair trial and a guarantee of impartial justice for everyone arrested during election protests, please click here.

Brent Patterson is the Executive Director of Peace Brigades International-Canada, a political activist and a writer. 

Photo: COPINH/Facebook

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