07/11/2013 05:35 EDT | Updated 09/10/2013 05:12 EDT

Federal government denies claims in lawsuit filed by New Brunswick farmer

FREDERICTON - The federal government is denying allegations that it did not do enough to secure the release of a New Brunswick potato farmer who languished for more than a year in a Beirut jail after he was accused of shipping rotten potatoes to Algeria.

In a 13-page statement of defence, filed Thursday with the Federal Court in Ottawa, the government said it provided Henk Tepper with diplomatic help and made "numerous and frequent diplomatic interventions" on his behalf.

It states there were about 10 meetings between Tepper and representatives of the Canadian government to monitor his well-being, 40 phone conversations with Tepper's family members and 50 interactions with his lawyers.

The document says Canadian representatives got results, successfully advocating that Tepper remain in detention at a local courthouse, rather than a prison or extradition to Algeria.

Tepper was held in a basement cell that measured about five metres by 10 metres. He said it was dark, often crowded and infested with cockroaches and spiders.

"I still have nightmares," Tepper said in May when the lawsuit was filed. "It will stick with me for the rest of my life."

Tepper has alleged the government didn't protect his Charter rights, something the government denies.

The $16.5-million lawsuit also alleges the RCMP provided misinformation to Algerian authorities prior to Tepper's arrest.

The government's statement of defence says the RCMP only provided information that was already publicly available.

As well, the document says Tepper is not entitled to damages, which the government describes as "excessive, exaggerated and too remote."

The claims in Tepper's lawsuit have not been proven in court.

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

The government says Tepper was there on his own and not part of the trade mission.

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

In its statement of defence, the government points out that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency determined that a portion of the potato shipment tested positive for bacterial ring rot, and that the Algerian importer was convicted of a criminal offence in connection with the shipment.

When Algeria issued an arrest warrant in December 2009 and May 2010, Interpol issued a red notice saying Tepper was a fugitive wanted for prosecution.

The lawsuit says that while the RCMP were aware of the red notice, they never alerted Tepper.

The statement of defence says Interpol does not inform individuals when they are the subject of a red notice, and that the government had no duty to notify him either.

Tepper returned to Canada on March 31, 2012, after his lawyers obtained a Lebanese presidential decree.

Sally Gomery, Tepper's Ottawa-based lawyer, declined comment Thursday, saying she had to discuss the statement of defence with her client.