Detention of Henk Tepper

Hon. Jim Munson: Honourable senators, New Brunswick potato farmer Henk Tepper has been languishing in a Beirut prison for nine months. It is an awful situation. He is confined to a holding cell without windows. Having spent some time in Beirut as a foreign correspondent, I have seen some of those jails. He has been accused of forging documents relating to a 2007 shipment of potatoes to Algeria, yet nine months after his arrest no charges have been laid.

The diplomatic parlance is he is in diplomatic limbo. He is not in diplomatic limbo, he is in a jail. He is Canadian, a fellow New Brunswicker, sitting in a Lebanese jail, waiting to be freed, charged or extradited, but he waits and waits.

We saw Question Period yesterday on the other side, but how much longer must he wait? What will it take to get Mr. Tepper home for the holidays?

Hon. Marjory LeBreton (Leader of the Government): Senator Munson is quite right that this issue has been before us here in the Senate. Also it was raised in the other place yesterday specifically by two members of Parliament: one a Conservative member of Parliament and the other a member of the NDP from New Brunswick.

Obviously this is a serious situation. The government is very concerned about Mr. Tepper’s case. We know of and fully sympathize with the difficult time this is causing him and his family. The Lebanese government specifically dismisses the allegation advanced by Mr. Tepper’s lawyer a few days ago, that a simple letter would release him. The government of Lebanon affirms that it will act in accordance with its own international legal obligations when faced with requests for extradition.

We have been actively providing consular assistance and support. Government officials and Minister Ablonczy have been in contact with senior Lebanese authorities, and Minister Ablonczy has personally written to the Lebanese government on Mr. Tepper’s behalf.

We all share the concerns as Canadians, New Brunswickers and members of Parliament for the situation that Mr. Tepper faces. I assure the honourable senator that the government is fully and actively involved in this case. Hopefully a solution can be found quickly and soon.

Senator Munson: I thank the leader for that answer, but in this kind of situation it takes more than a letter.

Some Hon. Senators: Agreed.

Let us remind ourselves who Mr. Tepper is — he is a Canadian. He is not in jail because of any terrorist act. This is about potatoes. He is a threat to no one. Why can this government not do the right thing? It is one thing to have the ambassador trying to do the right thing, and it is another thing to have these letters, but I think this is something that involves the foreign minister. Why can we not do the right thing? If he must face charges, at least have the charges laid and have them faced here.

Senator LeBreton: The honourable senator would know, since he was in government, the situation when sovereign governments take particular actions and how one government would view another government’s actions.

The fact of the matter is that Minister Ablonczy is the minister with specific responsibilities in the Department of Foreign Affairs, and she has personally made representations to the Lebanese government. I wish to assure the honourable senator that this is not an easy situation for Mr. Tepper or his family. The honourable senator himself would know, because he has dealt with issues like this one, that there is no obvious, easy, simple solution here.

I can report to honourable senators that our government, consular officials and the minister responsible for these files are actively working on Mr. Tepper’s behalf, and it is to be hoped that the Lebanese government will deal with this matter. However, they are a sovereign, foreign government, and we are a sovereign government. There are certain limitations as to what one government can do. Suffice it to say, honourable senators, that everything possible that can be done is, in fact, being done.

Senator Munson: When this government was sworn in, Mr. Harper — and I praise him for it — had no hesitation whatsoever in speaking very loudly about human rights conditions in countries like China. He talked about people being imprisoned, and he talked about the Uighur gentleman being released. He spoke publicly about it. He spoke to the president of China, and he has done that on many occasions to other countries that have their own people in their prisons.

Why will the Prime Minister not intervene for a Canadian?

Senator LeBreton: Honourable senators, the fact is that there are specific charges here from the government of Lebanon. In other cases, where all of us speak, it is on matters with regard to human rights and Canadians who are caught up in human rights issues in various countries. This is a specific case. There are specific charges in Lebanon that Lebanon is handling as a result of allegations from another country. It is not exactly the same type of situation, honourable senators. I think the honourable senator would acknowledge that.

Again, all of that is to say that none of us here would in any way want to do anything other than to express our great concern for Mr. Tepper and his family. Again, I wish to assure honourable senators that the government and officials, including the minister, are doing everything possible because, as the honourable senator knows, there are things that are not possible. However, every consular service and everything that is possible is being done to assist Mr. Tepper in his dilemma.