Why this billboard in rural Ontario is calling for the release of a Honduran prisoner

Some people in rural Ontario have come together in support of a Honduran man imprisoned there for almost a year, even putting up a billboard along an Ontario highway demanding his release.

Edwin Espinal, 43, was imprisoned following anti-government protests

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

Driving along Highway 90 near Barrie, Ont., you may notice a billboard that's unusual for the area where many of the advertisements are put up by local realtors.

It calls for political prisoners in Honduras to be freed, including Edwin Espinal, the man pictured on the sign, who it refers to as "Elmvale's Edwin Espinal."

But Espinal has never set foot in Elmvale, population 2,069, according to the 2011 census, nor has he been anywhere in Canada.

Still, some people in the community, and the larger area of Simcoe County, have taken him in as one of their own and are rallying behind him.

Espinal, 43, is the long-time partner of a Canadian originally from Elmvale, Karen Spring, 34. 

The two recently married behind prison walls.

Janet Spring says she spends every day on her computer, calling for her son-in-law Edwin Espinal to be released from prison in Honduras. (Lorenda Reddekopp/CBC)

Her mother, Janet Spring, says she's been on her computer every day since his arrest in January, trying to put on pressure to secure his release.

"It's very upsetting," said Spring in an interview at her farmhouse.

"We worry about it all the time and it's constantly on our minds." 

Espinal is a human rights activist in Honduras, one of a number of people arrested following anti-government protests, when thousands of people headed to the streets, angry with the presidential election results, which they viewed as fraudulent.

Human rights workers argue the arrests are connected to the same culture of fear and impunity that has sent thousands of migrants fleeing the country in a caravan, attempting to enter the United States.

Thousands of kilometres away, Spring and her community started a solidarity network, holding meetings and taking their message to politicians, including a news conference in Ottawa, calling for Espinal and others to be freed.

Karen Spring and Edwin Espinal hold their wedding certificate, following their marriage inside La Tolva military prison on Oct. 18, 2018. (submitted by Karen Spring)

"The charges are trumped up and no due legal process has been given to any of them," said Spring.

Her son-in-law and others have been charged with damaging property during protests.

She's visited Honduras as much as she can since her son-in-law's arrest, entering the maximum-security military prison where he's held in pre-trial custody.

"It's very dangerous in there," she said, adding he's lost an estimated 40 pounds during his 10 months in custody. 

"He was very thin, particularly in the face, and he did not look well."

Karen Spring, together with a supporter, when they took their fight to Ottawa. (Submitted by Janet Spring)

Honduras' public prosecutor's office did not respond to a request for comment on the case.

Canadian government says it's raised the issue with Honduras

The Canadian government sent a statement to CBC News.

"Although the ability of Canada to provide direct assistance to Honduran nationals such as Mr. Edwin Espinal is limited," it reads, "we will continue to advocate for due process and the protection of human rights in Honduras."

The statement says the government has raised the issue of Hondurans arrested during protests, with a Canadian official broaching the subject during a visit to the Central American country in November.

In Honduras, Karen Spring has tried to keep her husband's spirits up.

Edwin Espinal, seen following his arrest, in a photo that was distributed to Honduran media. (Submitted by Karen Spring)

The long-time partners only married in October. It wasn't the wedding Spring imagined.

"It was awful," she recalls of the prison ceremony.

Photos from that day show her in a red t-shirt and black pants, symbolizing the resistance movement in Honduras, Espinal was in a baggy white t-shirt and grey sweatpants.

The photos, she says, were all snapped by an armed military colonel wearing a balaclava mask. 

"It was cold. It was in a cement sort of chapel inside the prison," Spring said. "It was an awful environment."

She's hopeful her husband could be released soon, saying a dialogue with the Honduran government and the United Nations has included discussion of prisoners arrested following protests.

Spring is also gratified by the support back home.

"It's really amazing," she said in a phone interview from Tegucigalpa, the country's capital. 

She's also looking forward to seeing that billboard in person.

"I hope that once Edwin's free, we can take him."

Edwin Espinal and Karen Spring in an undated photo in Honduras. (Submitted by Janet Spring)

There's a longer story behind the billboard, too.

Billboard provided for free for months

It's been provided free of charge by the company, Datamax Outdoor Advertising.

The owner wanted to provide the space to make amends after the Spring family complained about an earlier ad that ran on a billboard space he has on their farmland.

The original ad enticed people to buy property in Honduras, the same type of development their daughter argues against in her human rights work, saying it harms local people there.

"I said, 'Listen, not only will we take it down," Datamax owner Adam Zimmerman recalls telling the family. "'How about a free billboard?'"

It's been up for months and there's no rush to take it down.

"As far as I'm concerned, it can just stay up," said Zimmerman.

And for Janet Spring, it brings comfort

"Some days when I feel very upset, I drive by just to check out the billboard and just to be here."


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