Potato farmer jailed in Lebanon returns to Canada

A New Brunswick farmer who spent more than a year in a Beirut prison, accused of selling rotten potatoes in Algeria, says he's "very glad to be home."

N.B. man detained for a year after RCMP turned over details to Algeria

New Brunswick potato farmer Henk Tepper walks with his sister Harmein Dionne as he arrives at the airport in Ottawa on Saturday. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

A New Brunswick farmer who spent more than a year in a Beirut prison, accused of selling rotten potatoes in Algeria, says he's "very glad to be home."

Henk Tepper, from Drummond, N.B., landed at Ottawa International Airport on Saturday afternoon on a flight from Frankfurt and was reunited with family members, including his wife, elderly parents and two daughters.

Tepper, 44, looked tired as he spoke briefly to reporters, saying that it "feels good" to be back on Canadian soil.

In an interview from the airport with CBC News, Tepper's sister, Harmien Dionne, said she was "so excited" to see her brother.

"I had to keep that hope always with me, because I'm a fighter and I know that sooner or later I was going to bring my brother back here. So I always had to believe. I always had to keep on to that little bit of positive that it was going to happen," Dionne said.

Tepper's family has been voicing concerns about the farmer's mental and physical health since he was detained. He will undergo a medical exam now that is back home, CBC's Laurie Graham reported. She added Tepper looked thinner and tired when he arrived in Ottawa.

His family and lawyers asked for privacy, and said they would speak to the media further on Monday.

Legal limbo

Tepper was picked up in Lebanon last year on an international warrant issued by Algeria over a shipment of potatoes.

A source close to Tepper told The Canadian Press an Interpol red notice issued by Algeria remains in effect. The notice says he could face up to five years in prison if convicted of the allegations.

Tepper has been in a legal limbo because he was being held on the Interpol notice by the Lebanese government, which doesn't have an extradition treaty with Algeria.

Algeria also alleges that Tepper forged documents related to the export of potatoes from Quebec and Prince Edward Island.    Tepper's lawyers have denied all of the allegations, saying the potatoes were inspected in Canada before shipment and met Algerian standards.

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

Squabbles over who gets credit

In a statement issued Saturday morning by Diane Ablonczy, Canada's minister of state for foreign affairs, the federal government said it had been working behind the scenes to get Tepper released.

"On behalf of the Government of Canada, I am pleased that Canadian consular officials have helped secure the release of Mr. Henk Tepper," she said. "Our government has been quietly and persistently working through diplomatic channels to resolve his situation.

"Canada's ambassador to Lebanon and consular officials displayed an unwavering commitment to assist Mr. Tepper. Canada is also appreciative of the responsiveness of our partners in Lebanon," Ablonczy said.

However, in an interview with CBC News on Saturday, New Brunswick Liberal Senator Pierrette Ringuette, who has been involved in the effort to free Tepper, said the federal government "failed" Tepper.

Ringuette credited her own efforts, alongside the efforts of the Lebanese government, with the Canadian farmer's release.

Henk Tepper, 44, was detained March 23, 2011, in Beirut due to an Algerian request to Interpol. (submitted)

"It was certainly the representation that we made, the facts that we brought to their attention, and I think also the long friendship between the Canadian people and the Lebanese people," Ringuette said.

A spokesman for Ablonczy in turn blamed Ringuette for the delay in Tepper's return.

"The senator's actions in late 2011 directly inhibited the progress of Mr. Tepper's case. This led to our office requesting a meeting with the senator's caucus colleagues to stress the need for a less public profile. Quiet diplomacy prevailed and Mr. Tepper is free," John Babcock said in a release to CBC News.

For her part, Tepper's sister, in a statement on behalf of the family, said the "team that brought Henk home to Canada" included Ringuette, Liberal Senator Mac Harb and Liberal MP Dominic LeBlanc — but didn't name any government officials.

Mounties disclosed information

RCMP investigated the case against Tepper and closed it for lack of evidence, but provided Interpol Algiers with information about Tepper, including financial details about his farming business along with other personal information about his wife, their house and assets.  

At the time, the RCMP said it was standard procedure to share such information with other Interpol countries.

But Tepper's lawyers believe it was that information that led to the Interpol warrant and his subsequent arrest in Lebanon where he was travelling on business.

Meanwhile, Tepper's business, Tobique Farms, has been under creditor protection since June — about $11 million is owed to various creditors.

The 1,214-hectare potato farming operation is one of the province’s largest potato producers.

With files from CBC's Laurie Graham and The Canadian Press