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Family of farmer jailed in Lebanon critical of government

Family and friends of a New Brunswick potato farmer in jail in Lebanon rallied in Grand Falls Wednesday, calling on the federal government to do more to bring Henk Tepper home.

The family and friends of a Drummond, N.B., potato farmer jailed in Lebanon rallied Wednesday outside the Grand Falls office of the MP for Tobique-Mactaquac, calling on the federal government to do more to bring Henk Tepper home.

Henk Tepper, 44, was detained March 23 and is in a jail in Beirut awaiting extradition to Algeria. Tepper was detained on an international criminal warrant at the request of the Algerian government, and is accused of selling potatoes that were unfit for human consumption in Algeria.

Henk Tepper operates Tobique Farms, which at 1,214 hectares is one of New Brunswick's largest producers.

He had been trying to find new markets for seed potatoes — potatoes used to start new crops — overseas when he was detained in Lebanon.

"We're having a hard time, a very hard time, especially for the kids," said Henk Tepper's wife Ella, adding that their daughter is graduating from high school next week.

"Graduating, don't even know if their dad is going to be there for her graduation," said Ella Tepper.

Family and friends are worried for Henk Tepper's physical and mental health after more than 80 days in jail, 

Ella has been able to talk to her husband, but very little. She speaks with him on the phone for one minute every two weeks.

"His voice, at the beginning, he always said he was strong," she said. "But now, I can feel in his voice, he's getting desperate."

Signatures were gathered on Grand Falls Main Street Wednesday. Supporters, including family, friends and co-workers, called for Henk Tepper's release.

"He does a lot for his employees," said Chantal Geneau, a Tobique Farms employee. "And this is why we're here today, we respect him."

"Hopefully he can get home," said family friend Peter Pederson. "That's all we're hoping for. Especially before his daughter's graduation.

Henk Tepper's sister, Harmiena Dionne said their MP, Conservative Mike Allen, is friendly and answers her emails, but told CBC News that no one can tell her what, if anything, is being done to help her brother.

"We've asked questions and pleaded with government to please bring Henk home and to help us with this and we aren't getting any response," said Dionne.

On Wednesday afternoon, CBC News received an email from Allen's office.

"I think any time the public conducts a public rally and signs a petition it needs to be considered as an ask for help," said Allen in the emailed statement.

"I certainly will take note of the ask and while my discussions with DFAIT (Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada) suggest everything from a consular support level that can be done is being done on Henk's behalf, I will continue to work on this on a day to day basis to look for any ways where I can personally assist in the best interests of everyone."

The matter came up Tuesday during question period in the House of Commons.

Liberal MP Dominic LeBlanc said the family has "heard nothing but dead air" from the federal government.

"It is unacceptable for the government to abandon Canadians in circumstances as difficult as Mr. Tepper's. When will the government intervene with Lebanese authorities, have Mr. Tepper released from the prison in Lebanon and brought back to Canada?" LeBlanc said.

Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Minister Diane Ablonczy maintained her officials are doing everything they can.

"Mr. Tepper and his family have been given substantial, vigorous and active assistance since the time he was arrested."

Farmers who sold potatoes through Henk Tepper say his loss is felt all over the community.

"Well first of all, he was a friend of mine ... he does a lot of business in the community," said farmer Wilhem Degooher.

"To see our government do so little, or apparently so little, it is disappointing," said Bert Blaauw, another local farmer. "For somebody who has been working so hard at trying to develop potato business not just for himself, but for the whole community."

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