Henk Tepper Return: Farmer's Sister Says Ottawa Did Not Do Enough For Jailed Man
GRAND FALLS, N.B. - The sister of a New Brunswick potato farmer who spent more than a year in a Lebanese jail on accusations he exported rotten potatoes says she doesn't believe Ottawa did enough to secure his release.
Hermien Dionne says she is not convinced that the federal government was doing all it could to have Henk Tepper return to Canada.
"I never had any feeling that the Canadian government was doing anything," she told a news conference Monday.
"I always read in the paper that they're doing things behind closed doors and that is it. So I'm asking the government now to share with the family, to share with the lawyers, what they were doing behind closed doors."
"I'd like to have some answers right now."
Tepper, who was not at the news conference, returned to Canada on Saturday after being held in custody in Beirut since March 23 of last year.
He was detained on an international arrest warrant on allegations he exported rotten potatoes to Algeria in 2007 and forged export documents.
Tepper was arrested in Lebanon when he travelled to the Middle East on an agricultural trade mission to promote seed potatoes from Atlantic Canada.
A spokesman for Diane Ablonczy, the federal minister of state for foreign affairs, issued a statement on the weekend saying "quiet diplomacy" led to Tepper's release.
But Jim Mockler, Tepper's lawyer, dismissed that.
"The government of Canada claims they were engaged in quiet diplomacy. It was so quiet, it wasn't heard," he said.
"For Minister Ablonczy now to try to somehow erase the past and rewrite the record is even worse. What she is trying to do now is absolutely unspeakable."
A spokesman for Ablonczy said in an email on Monday that consular officials were in regular contact with the family to provide updates on Tepper's behalf during the time he was jailed.
"Diplomacy by definition is done quietly and privately between governments," said John Babcock, a communications advisor in the minister's office, in the email.
Joe Karam, Tepper's lawyer in Lebanon, said the Canadian government repeatedly applied double standards. He said the government refused to give him copies of letters it sent to the Lebanese government, yet those letters were released to the media.
Karam also said the federal government should have proceeded with Tepper's case on Canadian soil, adding that if Tepper had been questioned in Canada and informed of the red notice, he would not have travelled abroad.
"There should be one standard in these matters and I hope (the Canadian government) will be doing this, so that people will not face the same situation Henk Tepper faced back in my country."
Mockler said he didn't think there was any chance the RCMP would now arrest Tepper on the red notice, adding that his client was content to stay home and not travel.
Ironically, the only Interpol country where Tepper is now cleared to travel is Lebanon because authorities there have cleared him of the allegations.
Mockler said Tepper's counsel want the red notice removed, but haven't decided how to proceed. He said they can go through Interpol or the Algerian government.
"We made efforts through the Algeria embassy in Canada to have the red notice removed but to date that just hasn't happened," Mockler said.
He said he also pleaded his client's innocence during a meeting last year with Algeria's ambassador to Lebanon.
"His response was, 'Well, if he's innocent, just send him to Algeria. We'll put him through a trial and he'll be found not guilty and sent home in no time at all.' We declined that offer."
The Algerian embassy in Ottawa did not return an interview request Monday.
While the lawyers said they didn't think the federal government was responsible for securing Tepper's release, they refused to say what was the breakthrough.
"There is some information I am not able to share and I have to protect the situation of how it was resolved," Karam said.
Mockler said Tepper spent the past year in the basement of the Beirut Justice building, sharing a 10-by-10-metre cell with about 40 other prisoners.
He said Tepper is expected to undergo a medical exam Wednesday and will need time to deal with the past year before he is able to publicly discuss his ordeal.
Intergovernmental relations expert Christian Leuprecht said no one should be surprised it took more than a year to secure Tepper's release.
"These are files that move very slowly," said Leuprecht, a political science professor at the Royal Military College of Canada and Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.
"I doubt the individual would have come home to Canada without the very active involvement by both (the Foreign Affairs Department) and, likely, the minister himself."
It's not unusual for Foreign Affairs to keep a low profile in such cases, given the fact that the file is politically sensitive and the department could be facing a civil lawsuit, he said.
"This is why they gave no advance notice that he was coming home," he said.
As for the red notice issued by Interpol, Leuprecht said it's possible the Canadian government wasn't aware of the notice when Tepper left Canada. He said the notices aren't always shared with all member states.
As well, Leuprecht said Algeria had the option of seeking a legal solution by filing a lawsuit against Tepper in a Canadian civil court. The fact that Algerian authorities did not pursue that option leaves open the possibility that they didn't have much of a case against Tepper, he said.
"You would usually only issue a red notice for someone when you don't know where the individual is," he said. "The fact that they didn't file a civil suit makes the entire thing somewhat suspect."
Even though Lebanon does not have an extradition treaty with Algeria, that wouldn't have stopped them from extraditing Tepper, Leuprecht said.
"Chances are that either the Lebanese authorities themselves smelled a rat, or that Canada — in collusion with some other western countries — put substantial pressure on the Lebanese government not to extradite the individual."