WORLD

Solidarity forever

A jailed Canadian couple starts a hunger strike

NOMI MORRIS April 27 1998
WORLD

Solidarity forever

A jailed Canadian couple starts a hunger strike

NOMI MORRIS April 27 1998

Solidarity forever

WORLD

BRAZIL

A jailed Canadian couple starts a hunger strike

NOMI MORRIS

When Marilyn Lamont and her husband, Keith, visited their daughter Christine in a Brazilian jail in February, she told them she and her fiancé planned to starve themselves. Christine, 38, and David Spencer, 34, of Moncton, N.B., had served more than eight years of a 28-year kidnapping sentence, and planned to refuse food until they were either expelled to Canada with no criminal record or died. “We did our best to dissuade them, of course,” Marilyn Lamont said last week. “But we understand why they did it.” As the two were transferred to prison infirmaries in Säo Paulo last week, light-headed after days of taking only water, many in Canada were having a lot more trouble understanding their tactics.

Chief among them was Foreign Affairs g Minister Lloyd Axworthy, who said he was £ perplexed by the couple’s rejection of a 1 chance to return home under a newly signed £ prisoner exchange treaty that would make | them immediately eligible for parole. ‘We î have tried all other alternatives and were told > flatly by the Brazilians that they were not ac1 ceptable,” Axworthy said from Santiago, | Chile, where he was attending the 34-nation £ Summit of the Americas.

Axworthy’s department arranged for Spencer’s father, Bill, to speak to his son on Wednesday, because the 76-year-old widower was “mystified” by his son’s position. “If I were in his shoes, I’d be on the first plane home,” Bill Spencer told Maclean’s.

Instead, the couple—who have not seen each other for eight years—appeared still to be wedded to the solidarity struggle that prompted their ill-fated Latin American odyssey while they were student activists at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C. The pair—along with five Chileans, two Argentinians and a Brazilian—were convicted in the 1989 abduction of Brazilian supermarket magnate Abilio Diniz, who was released unharmed. In Canada, the couple’s claims to be innocents abroad caught up in the affair sparked a wave of sympathy in the early 1990s, with 15,000 signing petitions on their behalf. But support dropped like a stone in 1996 when the couple admitted direct involvement in the kidnapping, which was designed to raise money for the Marxist revolution in El Salvador.

Their initial sentences of eight and 10

years—the Brazilian maximum for political, as opposed to criminal, acts—were raised to 28 years on appeal, excessive even by Brazilian standards. Moreover, foreigners are not eligible for parole. “Christine has served longer than any woman in her prison,” said her sister, Beth Lamont, who flew down to Säo Paulo. “She has seen murderers come and go. She feels she has paid dearly. It has taken most of her 30s, a decade of her life.

She wanted to have a family really badly.” To Ottawa, a prisoner exchange treaty has long seemed the best way for the couple to get home. Last week, though, the pair insisted that the only acceptable solution was expulsion and pardon for the whole group. Axworthy, in Chile with Prime Minister Jean Chrétien to push for hemispheric free trade, said that outcome was highly unlikely. “The treaty is there for them and we hope they will use it,” he said. “If they want to pursue expulsion, that’s their business.”

But the hunger strikers felt their cause had gained support in Brazil, Argentina and Chile, which has lobbied hard for Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso to free the entire group. “The president will not have a moment’s peace when he arrives here,” said Chilean legislator Jaime Naranjo Ortiz before the summit. “Wherever he goes

there will be protests.” Most importantly, Säo Paulo Archbishop Paulo Evaristo Aras, who had mediated a peaceful end to the sixday kidnap crisis in 1989, stepped in to plead the group’s case with Cardoso, bolstering the Canadians’ belief that the all-or-nothing, all-for-one strategy might pay off. “Christine and David are very optimistic,” said sister Beth, who was visiting the prisoners daily and met with the archbishop. “He is going to talk to the president heart-to-heart and he believes the president will listen to him.” According to the Lamonts, Cardoso is under pressure from the influential Diniz—a key campaign donor in an election year— who had made it clear he wants the prisoners to stay in Brazil. In a country where financially motivated kidnapping is rampant, mainstream public opinion was also against the prisoners. A poll last week showed 68 per cent opposed sending the prisoners

abroad, with 57 per cent viewing repatriation as a blow to Brazilian sovereignty.

Under the new treaty—which affects seven other Canadians in Brazilian prisons, some on drug charges—Brazilian court sentences stand, but the administration of the sentence is handled by Canada. That means a likely 20 years on parole for Spencer and Lamont. By week’s end, there was no sign they were willing to exercise that option. There was also no sign Cardoso was about to relent. As ambulances stood at the ready to rush the Canadian couple to an outside hospital, their friends and family still hoped the pair would somehow soon be back for their long-awaited wedding. “All of us agree they had to pay a price,” said Art Martens, who heads a support committee in Canada, “but it’s time for them to come home.” In the end, that decision may be Lamont and Spencer’s alone.

NOMI MORRIS with ALEX BELLOS in Rio de Janeiro