POLITICS
12/14/2011 03:50 EST | Updated 02/13/2012 05:12 EST

Federal government says a letter is not enough to free farmer jailed in Lebanon

OTTAWA - Securing the release of a New Brunswick farmer from a Lebanese prison isn't as easy as the man's lawyer suggests, Canada's minister of state for foreign affairs said Wednesday.

Diane Ablonczy said in the House of Commons that it will take more than a letter to gain the release of Henk Tepper.

"The Lebanese government specifically dismisses the allegation that a simple letter would release Mr. Tepper and affirms that it must act in accordance with Lebanon's international legal obligations when faced with a request for extradition," Ablonczy said.

Tepper has been held in a Beirut prison since March 23 under an international arrest warrant over allegations that potatoes he exported to Algeria in 2007 were rotten.

Algeria alleges that Tepper forged documents related to the export of potatoes from Quebec and Prince Edward Island.

Tepper's lawyers have denied the allegation, saying the potatoes were inspected in Canada before shipment and met Algerian standards.

One of his lawyers, Jim Mockler, said the Lebanese justice minister told him face-to-face Tuesday in Beirut that he needs a letter from Canada to release the farmer.

"There were three other people in the room with the minister of justice when he told us what I told you yesterday," Mockler said in an interview from Beruit on Wednesday with The Canadian Press. "I'm not moving away from that.

"We're trying to reach the embassy to see if they know who minister Ablonczy was referring to when she spoke of having communicated with Lebanese authorities."

A spokesman in Ablonczy's office said Canadian officials spoke directly with the Lebanese justice minister.

Mockler said he hopes there is just some misunderstanding.

Ablonczy said the Canadian government is doing everything possible to assist Tepper, and will continue to do so.

Tepper's large potato farming operation in Drummond, in northwestern New Brunswick, remains under creditor protection.

Other lawyers for Tepper have until this Friday to present the court with a plan to deal with more than $11 million in debt.

— By Kevin Bissett in Fredericton