06/27/2012 02:11 EDT | Updated 08/27/2012 05:12 EDT

Henk Tepper, New Brunswick Potato Farmer, Says Ottawa Did Nothing To Get Him Released From Foreign Jail


DRUMMOND, N.B. - During the 373 days he spent in a Lebanese jail on allegations he tried to export rotten potatoes to Algeria, Henk Tepper says the day his daughter graduated from high school was among the most difficult.

The farmer from New Brunswick spoke for the first time about his ordeal on Wednesday, blaming the federal government for not doing enough to help get his release as he became increasingly depressed at the prospect of facing trial in Algeria.

While the federal government says it used quiet diplomacy to gain his freedom, Tepper said he was told by the Canadian ambassador in Beirut they were getting ready for him to be extradited to face the charges.

"She said 'We're going to make sure you're going to follow fair justice in Lebanon, fair extradition to Algeria, and be fairly judged and tried in Algeria,' " Tepper recalled during an interview with The Canadian Press at the kitchen table of his home in Drummond.

"I was really worried when she told me that."

Tepper was released and flew home to Canada on March 31.

A spokesman for Diane Ablonczy, the federal minister of state for foreign affairs, said he didn't know how Tepper got the impression that Canadian officials weren't helping.

"The government of Canada has worked persistently on his behalf," John Babcock said in an email.

"We know this has been a very difficult time for Mr. Tepper and his family. We are pleased that he is now safely home in Canada."

But Tepper said he got a very different message from Canadian officials in Beirut.

"They never ever mentioned going back to Canada. They said they had their embassy in Algiers and that they would make sure that I was fairly tried in Algeria," he said.

"As far as I'm concerned and what I know, they haven't done anything to bring me home. They wanted me to go to Algeria."

Tepper says consular officials also told him they were in daily contact with his family, but that wasn't the case.

Tepper was arrested in Lebanon on March 23, 2011, when he travelled to the Middle East on an agricultural trade mission to promote seed potatoes from Canada.

He was detained on an international arrest warrant on allegations he exported rotten potatoes to Algeria in 2007 and forged export documents — allegations he denies.

He shipped about 3,800 metric tonnes of potatoes from Prince Edward Island and Quebec to Algeria.

Off-loading of the potatoes in Algiers began but was stopped after officials there received a report that the potatoes might have ring rot. The condition is not hazardous to humans, but it can affect other potato plants if the potatoes are used as seed stock.

The 310 tonnes of potatoes that were taken off the ship passed all inspections. The rest of the shipment was eventually diverted to Syria.

Tepper said two years later, two men who identified themselves as police officers from Toronto visited his farm and wanted to ask him questions about the potato shipment. He told them to return at a time when his lawyer could be present, but they never contacted him again.

Tepper said he was unaware that Algeria issued an arrest warrant and an Interpol red notice. The charges carry a sentence of up to five years in prison if convicted.

Tepper said he believes Canadian officials would have known about the Interpol notice and should have alerted him not to travel outside of Canada.

"It makes me mad," he said. "I spent a whole year in a prison away from my country, from my family, from my business."

After his arrest in Lebanon, he was taken to an immigration prison that holds more than 1,500 prisoners, where he described the conditions as horrible.

The next day he was interrogated and moved to a cell in the basement of the courthouse in Beirut. He said the cell, which measured about five metres by 10 metres, was dark, smelled, and was infested with cockroaches and large spiders.

"The bathroom was just a four-inch hole in the floor. The shower was just a steel pipe with some water running down."

He shared the cell with up to 32 other prisoners. He said it was cold in the winter and very hot in the summer. The prisoners slept on thin mattresses on the concrete floor.

Family members and his lawyer, Jim Mockler, visited Tepper a number of times. Tepper said he became very depressed each time they left without him.

He said it was difficult to cope, but another prisoner told him not to think about home and only concentrate on surviving each day there.

Tepper said that helped, but there were difficult days, like June 17, 2011, when he knew his daughter was graduating from high school.

"June 17 arrived and passed and I was still there. It was hard. I told my sister, don't send me no pictures. Don't write me no letters about events. If any bad things happen, don't write to me. There's nothing I can do anyway," he said.

"My daughter did write me a letter and it was very hard to read."

Tepper was released after his lawyers and Lebanese justice officials found a legal avenue to send him back to Canada.

Since arriving home, Tepper has been planting this year's crop and trying to sort out the financial problems that have plagued his companies during his absence.

Tepper's farming operation was placed under creditor protection while his family and lawyers worked on a plan to deal with $11 million in debt.

In March, Judge Lucie LaVigne of the New Brunswick Court of Queen's Bench approved a restructuring plan that merged Tepper's eight companies into one.

On Wednesday, Tepper said two of his companies were allowed to go bankrupt and he's had to sell some land and equipment as he works with his bank and creditors.

He is also making a difficult transition back to life at home.

"I'm doing OK, but not like before. The nights are difficult. I have difficulty sleeping. I still have flashbacks about the whole event I went through," he said.

"It will take time."