DRUMMOND, N.B. - The lawyer for a New Brunswick farmer jailed in Lebanon for more than four months says his client is being treated like a criminal and the Canadian government is doing nothing to help.
Jim Mockler said Tuesday night that Henk Tepper, 44, of Drummond is being held in a cell in Beirut because of a commercial dispute with Algeria and has not been charged with anything.
"From where I stand the government has done absolutely nothing, the embassy has done absolutely nothing, and I just find that beyond despicable," Mockler said to about 125 people gathered at the municipal hall in Tepper's home community in the province's northwest.
Tepper was detained in Lebanon on March 23 under a criminal warrant issued by the International Criminal Police Organization at the request of the Algerian government.
Algeria alleges that Tepper forged documents related to the export of Canadian potatoes to the country in 2007, claiming in the warrant that he was trying to sell food he knew was rotten.
Tepper's lawyer denied the allegation, stating the potatoes were inspected in Canada before shipment and met Algerian standards.
Liberal Senator Pierrette Ringuette told the crowd that Tepper was the broker for the shipment of potatoes that came from Quebec and Prince Edward Island.
She said the Canadian Food Inspection Agency called Algeria to say the potatoes tested positive for ring rot. She said a second test showed they were only suspected of the disease but the agency didn't make a second call to Algeria.
She said the potatoes passed subsequent tests and were eventually shipped to Syria.
"Mr. Tepper continued to grow and export potatoes," Ringuette said, adding he arrived in Lebanon in March on a trade mission to promote seed potatoes from Atlantic Canada.
"He was detained because Algeria had put a red notice on his name. The allegations are that these were bad, killer potatoes for Algerians, and we have to prove that this is not the case."
Ringuette said the Canadian government and the RCMP have exchanged documents with the Algerian government but have not released the documents to Tepper's lawyers despite a legal request on May 4.
"I find that it is absolutely cruel what governments are doing to this guy and, by ricochet, to this community," she said.
Mockler said the Lebanese government and justice officials there have been very co-operative and he's hoping Tepper could soon be transferred to a medical facility for examination.
"I'm worried for his health, and especially his mental health," said Mockler, who made his second trip to visit with Tepper in Beirut earlier this month.
He said there are no beds in the jail cells and Tepper must sleep on a concrete floor.
Tepper's father has come out of retirement to run the farm that has debts of about $8 million.
A judge with New Brunswick's Court of Queen's Bench has granted creditor protection until September for Tepper's 200-hectare operation, Tobique Farms.
Mockler had asked the court to continue to protect the farm from being petitioned into bankruptcy by creditors so Tepper's family can harvest their potato crop and pay its expenses.
Court documents filed by BMO Financial Group, the largest secured creditor, state the bank is committed to working with the Tepper family to find a solution to the financial troubles.
The bank also says in court documents it has discussed a longer-term solution that would involve the sale of land to reduce debt.
Many of the people attending the meeting expressed concern the federal government hadn't taken action, and many asked if they should be marching to Parliament Hill.
Ringuette replied that without the House of Commons in session until September, such a protest would have little effect.
"We can't just wait until September," one man said. Others offered to begin writing their politicians.
Tepper's sister, Harmien Tepper-Dionne, said she and her sister-in-law met with Foreign Affairs officials in Ottawa but were told there was little that could be done.
"We were told that, legally, the Canadian government could not do anything. ... They could only provide consular assistance to my brother," she said.
Dionne said many letters and emails have been written by her family and by her brother from his jail cell.
"My brother Henk even wrote in one letter, 'If you don't want to help me Mr. Harper, give my family a call,'" she said, referring to the prime minister. "I have not received that call yet."