Against their will

MARK NICHOLS June 15 1992

Against their will

MARK NICHOLS June 15 1992

Against their will

Letter from São Paulo


The bright, whitewashed walls of the São Paulo State Women’s Penitentiary provide a sharp contrast to the cloudy sky over Santana, a lower-middle-class neighborhood in São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city. Visitors have to wait outside for guards to escort them through two sets of barred gates into the prison itself. Convicts are housed in four three-storey cell blocks; to one side is a row of administrative buildings. In one, a guard led Christine Lamont, 33, of Langley, B.C., into a meeting room. Prison life seems to have taken its toll on Lamont. Twenty-nine months after she and her boyfriend, David Spencer, 28, from Moncton, N.B., were jailed in connection with a 1989 kidnapping of a Brazilian businessman, her face is haggard and her manner has a jittery intensity. She chainsmokes. She smiles often, but that does not disguise the fact that she is a frightened wornj an. And she is frustrated that neither the j Brazilian courts nor the Canadian government believes her contention that she and Spencer were wrongfully convicted. Lamont stated her position bluntly last week to Maclean’s:. “We have been sentenced to 28 years in prison for something that we didn’t do.”

Spencer and Lamont claim that they were in ; the wrong place at the wrong time. On Dec. 17,

1989, they and four other occupants of a house in a middle-class Säo Paulo suburb surrendered J

to police who had surrounded the building a day earlier. Lamont, Spencer and the other residents were charged with kidnapping Abilio Diniz, an executive of a chain of supermarkets, and holding him for ransom. (Diniz was released uninjured.) Originally, Lamont and Spencer received sentences of eight and 10 years each. But in December, 1991, when the prisoners appealed their convictions to a ^ higher court, the sentences

t; were increased to 28 years. 9 The two Canadians have £ said from the start that they 2 are innocent, but so far Otta-

t; wa has not made use of an I unusual feature of Brazilian I law that allows foreign govx emments to request the ex5 pulsion of any of their citizens ^ convicted by the Brazilian jusx tice system. In April, Exter5 nal Affairs Minister Barbara g McDougall announced that E she had rejected a request by

the families of Lamont and Spencer to request their expulsion from Brazil. A federal review of the Brazilian trial

that was prepared for McDougall concluded that the couple received a fair trial.

The two Canadians hope that a Commons justice committee may yet call on McDougall to reverse her decision. Last week, a delegation that included Lamont’s

and Spencer’s parents, their Canadian counsel, Jennie Hatfield-Lyon, and Dr. Marco Antonio Nahum, a human rights lawyer from Brazil, told the all-party committee that the convictions for kidnapping and resisting arrest were the result of political pressure. The then-secretary of security for the state was running for governor on a platform of getting tough with criminals. Counsel for the accused said that he used his power as secretary of security to push the convictions through court. As well, Nahum said that the court chose to admit testimony from a policeman who said that he had “heard” them confess even though there was no written confession, while ignoring the kidnap victim, who testified that he never saw Lamont or Spencer and never heard English being spoken. Said Jennie HatfieldLyon: “Justice here falls below even Brazil’s standards.”

In her prison, Lamont called McDougall’s decision “terribly disappointing.” She added: “I didn’t see any justification that she had for not acting on our request. It seemed so clear a solution to what was so obviously unjust that I just could not believe that she was not going to do it.”

A wall is all that separates the women’s penitentiary from the adjoining men’s prison, where, half an hour later, Spencer is escorted into a large meeting room in the institution’s administrative centre. He, too, smokes heavily,

although his manner is more calm. And also like Lamont, with whom he is allowed to communicate only through letters written in Portuguese, Brazil’s official language, he reacted bitterly to McDougall’s decision. “I felt devastated, angry, disappointed,” he said. “I believe that Ottawa decided a long time ago that we were guilty. Because it’s easier that way. They can just say, ‘Lamont and Spencer are guilty. It’s not our problem.’ ”

But supporters of Lamont and Spencer claim that, far from being guilty, the Canadians are victims of what they say is a faulty justice system. They say that the trial, which took place shortly after Brazil’s 1989 presidential elections, was tainted by political pressure to obtain convictions in the case, centring on one of a rash of kidnappings that have racked Brazil in recent years. As well, political analysts say that the police and prosecutors attempted to link the kidnappers with the opposition Workers Party, which was defeated in the election. After investigating the police methods used in the case, the London-based organization Amnesty International documented at least one case of a witness being tortured.

Lamont and Spencer went to Säo Paulo because of their long-standing interest in left-wing Latin American causes. They had met in Vancouver during the mid1980s, when both worked for a group that supported leftist guerrillas in El Salvador.

Later, they moved to Toronto and briefly to Ottawa, where they pursued similar interests. At around that time, said Spencer, he and Lamont decided that “we wanted to get married and start a family.

But we felt that first we should come to Latin America to see what we could of the place” before the responsibilities of family life tied them down. Added Spencer:

“We wanted to see how things were in Latin America, and what the political conditions were like.”

In 1989, while visiting Argentina,

Spencer met a leftist named Humberto Paz. Later that year, the couple decided to spend some time in Säo Paulo, a sprawling industrial city of 17 million. They agreed to rent a house and share it with Paz, his brother and two of his friends.

Spencer says that he was aware of Paz’s political background and knew that he had been a political prisoner in Argentina. For those reasons, he said, Paz “was the kind of person that I found interesting.” Spencer said that he shared some, but not all, of Paz’s political views. He added: “It is an interesting time in Latin American history, during the transition that is occurring from dictatorship to democracy. It’s a challenging moment for those on the left.”

Both Lamont and Spencer insist that they were completely unaware of the plan developed by Paz and his friends to kidnap Diniz and hold him for ransom in a secret underground area of their Säo Paulo house. Still, skeptics question how the two Canadians could not have known what was going on right under their noses. During the trial, Spencer testified that he had bought some building materials for one of Paz’s friends, a Chilean named Hector Collante Tapia, who was building a shelving unit to disguise the entrance to the underground area where Diniz was held prisoner for four days. But Spencer said in his interview that he and Lamont spent most of their time outside the house, taking lessons in Portuguese and pursuing their research into Latin American affairs.

He was aware that Paz and his friends had begun renovations in Paz’s part of the house, he added. “I had seen from the kitchen that there was a shelving unit being constructed at the back of the house,” he said. “This was like a back patio area—almost an independent part of the house. It’s common in Latin American houses to have areas like these for live-in maids. They were fixing up the bedroom back there. I presumed that people would be living there at some point in the future.”

But Spencer maintained that he had never known the construction

materials that he bought were being used to build an underground hiding place. “It was a very small thing,” he said. “The judge asked me if I ever bought any construction materials and I told him. I was out one day and was asked to stop by a hardware store and buy a small bag of cement and some wood. If it was such a terrible thing, why would I have told the judge? I was not aware of any underground construction taking place.” Adds Spencer: “I tell you, I did not agree to rent the house thinking that maybe they’re going to kidnap someone. Criminal activity of that nature was just not in my mind.”

Spencer says that he found it rewarding to take part in political discussions with Paz and his friends. But he says that he had no idea that Paz planned to carry out a kidnapping. Said Spencer: “I want to make it absolutely clear that, if I had ever had any inkling of that, I would never have agreed to rent the house with them.”

Facing more than 25 years behind bars (in Brazil, foreign prisoners are not allowed parole), Lamont admitted that her spirits sometimes flag in her drab, spartan eight-by10-foot cell. “My survival strategy

here,” she said, “has been to cut off emotional things as much as I can. So I’m never really happy, and I’m never really depressed. I’m in a kind of twilight zone emotionally. I wonder sometimes what kind of problems that might give me when I’m finally out of here. But to get by, that’s what I have to do.”

Lamont has clearly thought a lot about how she will survive. “Prison is about what you can’t do,” she said. “There is the fact of physical confinement. You’d be a fool to fight it. But the important thing is that you never give up your mind, or your spirit. They are your own, and in prison, having control over something is a great victory. So far it’s worked—I’ve survived. My number 1 project is to come out of here with my wits intact.”

Spencer’s survival strategy is similar, although more coolly intellectual. “The important thing, first of all, is never to lose hope,” he said. “I believe that some day I will be out of prison and that Christine and I will be together. That is my starting point. I know that I should not be here, and that Christine should not be here, and that some day we will win out over all that has happened.” How much longer Lamont and Spencer stay in their Brazilian jails may be determined by parliamentarians deliberating their fate in Ottawa. But for now, the two Canadians are trying to exercise what little control they still have over their starkly restricted lives.