• LEBANON \ Sep 02, 2003
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    Lebanese court finds Balfour innocent
Lebanese court finds Balfour innocent A Lebanese military court ruled that Bruce Balfour, 52, a Christian missionary from Calgary, was not guilty of collaborating with Israel, a charge punishable by 15 years jail. Balfour had arrived in Lebanon on a British Airways flight from Los Angeles on July 10.

He is believed to have been in the Middle East directing an evangelical project to help replant the biblical cedar forests in northern Lebanon.

Balfour was arrested on a military court order accusing him of visiting Israel and collaborating with the enemy. He had pleaded innocent.

His family said Monday that while Canadian diplomats in Beirut worked hard for his release, federal authorities in Ottawa had let him down.

"The Canadian government basically did nothing," Laura Mackenzie, Balfour's sister, told The Canadian Press in an interview from her home in Clearwater, B.C.

Canadian Citizenship and Immigration Minister Denis Coderre met earlier Monday with Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and said Canada respected Lebanon's judicial system.

Coderre said he also met with Balfour at the suburban Roumieh prison, east of Beirut, and that Balfour appeared to be in good health.

An official from the Cedars of Lebanon project also said he believed the Canadian government had stepped up efforts in recent days to secure Balfour's release.

Speaking about Balfour's treatment in prison, John Bleile said, "To my knowledge (torture) did not happen . . . but just being in a prison system, which is probably inferior to our own, is torture enough."

Foreign Minister Bill Graham said Monday he was "satisfied that due process has acquitted Mr. Balfour of these most serious charges and pleased that he will be returning home to Canada."

Balfour's lawyer, Ibrahim Hariri, argued his client had visited Israel on a religious mission.

Lebanon is technically at war with Israel and bars any traveller carrying a passport with an Israeli stamp. It is rare, however, for such travellers to be arrested.

At a court appearance last week, Balfour said he was not a spy and that he served God and Jesus.

Rev. John Lucas, Canadian president of the Cedars of Lebanon project, was pleased with the verdict.

"Thanks be to God. I feel relieved. We've been exchanging e-mails and waiting patiently for this. We were very concerned. We never understood why he was arrested in the first place," he said.

The tribunal also accused Balfour of inciting sectarian sentiments, but said the time he spent in prison was sufficient punishment and ordered his release as soon as Tuesday. His deportation was expected soon after.

Last month, Lebanese Prosecutor General Adnan Addoum said he received information that Balfour had travelled between Lebanon and Israel in a way that aroused suspicion. A warrant was issued April 2 for his arrest.

Another Canadian citizen, Grant Livingstone, who stood trial in absentia on the same charge, was also found innocent.

This is the second time in recent months that the Department of Foreign Affairs has come under fire for its handling of cases involving Canadian citizens arrested abroad.

The family of William Sampson, who was recently released from prison in Saudi Arabia, has raised questions over the handling of his file.

Foreign Minister Bill Graham suggested at the time that the issue had to be approached delicately and that protecting Sampson's life had been the government's priority.

Sampson was freed last month after spending 31 months in a Saudi prison after being sentenced to execution by beheading for a car bombing he insisted he didn't commit.

His family said the Canadian government failed to publicly criticize the Saudi authorities for the harsh treatment Sampson went through while in prison.

Raising similar concerns, Balfour's sister said her brother's was not an isolated case.

"There are many other people like my brother out there. I feel sorry if they don't have families helping them, because then they're alone," Mackenzie said.

She said she would not feel completely relieved until her brother was out of Lebanon.

"He's not out of the woods yet. I'll feel a whole lot happier once (his plane is) in the air," she said.

"I'll be relieved when he's free."

She said she expects him back in North America on Tuesday.