A former Canadian diplomat says the federal government often uses letters from the prime minister to help free Canadians jailed abroad.
It works roughly half the time, according to Gar Pardy, former Canadian ambassador to Costa Rica, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, and El Salvador.
But in the ongoing saga of New Brunswick potato farmer Henk Tepper, the Canadian government may be focusing its attention on the wrong country, and should be looking to Algeria, the source of the criminal charges, Pardy said.
He also said Lebanon may not be willing to provide Canada a with a political favour because of its pro-Israel foreign policy stance.
Canada’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Diane Ablonczy has insisted that a simple letter to Lebanon will not return the imprisoned farmer home. Tepper’s lawyer and a New Brunswick senator have stated otherwise after meeting with Lebanese Justice Minister Shakib Qortbawi in Beirut.
“It’s a technique we have used over the years,” Pardy said. “Sometimes you can use a letter from the head of government here to the head of government there.
“It’s a common technique that one uses, every government uses it.”
Tepper was imprisoned on March 23 as he arrived in Lebanon on a trade mission.
He has been held on allegations that some potatoes he exported to Algeria in 2007 were rotten.
An Interpol “red notice” that remains in place stating that the Algerian government called for his detention for the alleged use of a forged document to clear rotten food for sale for human consumption.
Pardy, who retired as director general of the consular affairs bureau in 2003, said he is unaware how often the Harper government flexes its political muscle, but added that the letter could be crafted in a way to evoke humanitarian and compassionate grounds.
“In Henk’s case: ‘The poor man is suffering from this incarceration, his family and business in Canada is going to the dogs,’?” Pardy said. “That’s what you cue on here and the one thing you do not do is accuse the other government.
“You take the soft peddle and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.”
Pardy said such a letter was used in the cases of Maher Arar, detained in Syria in 2002 for almost a year, and William Sampson who was detained in Saudi Arabia in 2000 for 32 months.
“We used to use the prime ministerial letter with some regularity,” he said.
Pardy said that a letter to Lebanon could do little since the country is stuck in the middle of the dispute and is not dilomatically well-disposed to Canada.
“The solution to the case is not necessarily in Lebanon,” Pardy said. “I think it is expecting too much for the Lebanese government to ignore the Interpol request.
“Canada’s relationship with countries in the Middle East is not very good, it’s getting worse, largely based on the decision by the Canadian government to put Israel on top of our relationship totem in the Middle East.”
Pardy said the Lebanese government is “dominated” by the Muslim militant group and political party Hezbollah.
“Hezbollah has Israel on the top of its list for other reasons,” Pardy said, noting the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War, which killed an estimated 1,200 people, mostly Lebanese citizens, while displacing roughly one million others.
“It is in part in that larger context that you may never get a positive decision by the Lebanese government for it to ignore the Interpol request,” he said.
“It doesn’t get talked about because this government does not want to talk about the collateral damage as result of its policy on Israel and the Lebanese are quite prepared, I’m sure, to hide behind the Interpol notice.”
Pardy said Canada stands a better chance with Algeria, citing a better political relationship and the successful presence of Canadian oil and gas producers in that country.
“It could be the better way to go,” he said. “In my mind the answer is more in Algiers than in Beirut.”
Kim Richard Nossal, director of the Centre for International and Defence Policy at Queen’s University, said that, even with persuasion from political officials, the extradition of an citizen from one country to another is a lengthy process.
“Extradition is a slow process that involves the legal systems of different countries,” Nossal said. “Our legal system grinds incredibly slow even for Canadians and then add the international factor to that and you’ve just got an incredibly slow process.
“The only way to make it less slow is when the political leadership involves itself in the process and then those who say you have to be careful when doing that are absolutely correct.”
He added: “You really do have to worry about being seen as pushing your weight around and trying to interfere in the process because keep in mind if the shoe was on the other foot.”
Pardy said that Tepper’s detention is not an extraordinary case.
“There is a process that goes into play here,” Pardy said. “Even nine months in a Lebanese jail is not a long time.
“Extradition is a very large, oval process.”