Canadian officials are working "with a real sense of urgency" to investigate new reports that Saudi security forces are using Canadian-made military vehicles in a violent crackdown in the Shia-populated city of Awamiyah, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said Monday.
Video posted online over the weekend appears to show at least one Canadian-made Terradyne Gurkha armoured personnel carrier (APC) operated by the Sunni kingdom's elite Special Security Forces driving through a devastated neighbourhood.
Ali Adubisi, director of the Berlin-based European Saudi Organization for Human Rights, told Radio Canada International that 20 to 30 people have been reported killed in a massive security operation involving hundreds of Saudi special police backed by dozens of armoured vehicles in the city in Saudi Arabia's eastern province, home to a large segment of the minority Shia population.
RCI reported two weeks ago that media reports and social media posts from Awamiya, which has been under siege by Saudi security forces since May, showed government forces using what appear to be APCs produced and exported to the oil-rich kingdom by Terradyne Armored Vehicles Inc., a privately owned company based in Newmarket, Ont.
Despite repeated attempts to reach officials at Terradyne, no one from the company was available to comment.
Officials at the Saudi Embassy in Ottawa also did not respond to repeated phone calls and email requests for comment.
'A real sense of urgency'
Speaking to reporters on a teleconference call Monday from Manila, where she attended the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum Ministerial Meeting, Freeland said she was concerned about the reports.
"I have instructed our department and my officials to very energetically and very carefully review the reports and review the information, and research what is happening," Freeland said.
"We are absolutely committed to defend the human rights and we condemn all violations of human rights. We also are very clear that we expect end users of any and all exports to abide by the terms of our export permits."
Canadian officials have also expressed their concerns to Saudi authorities, she said.
"On Friday, before I left for Manila, I had a specific conversation with my officials about this and encouraged them to go about their work — obviously we have to be careful — but to go about their work with a real sense of urgency."
Freeland said she also discussed the issue with Federica Mogherini, the European Union's high representative for foreign affairs, on the sidelines of themeeting in Manila.
"I shared with her Canada's concerns, Canada's investigation of this matter, because I know that some European member states and the European parliament has the concerns as well," Freeland said.
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Last year, the European Parliament passed a non-binding motion for an EU-wide arms embargo against Saudi Arabia to protest the kingdom's heavy bombing campaign in Yemen, and the Dutch parliament later voted to ban arms exports to Saudi Arabia in protest of alleged human rights violations.
Freeland said she is personally engaged on the issue.
"It is something that I'm checking on on a very — very regular basis," she said, adding that Canada has to be sure it is "acting on fully reliable information we can stand by."
City under siege
The urgency also comes from the fact the security operation in Awamiyah continues unabated.
"Awamiyah is surrounded now by the military," said Adubisi, who himself fled the city in 2013 after being detained and tortured by Saudi security forces three times. "It has become like a military area controlled by the Saudi military."
Most of Awamiyah's 35,000 residents have been forced to flee the city, Adubisi said.
The remaining residents of Awamiyah are too afraid of government shelling and snipers to leave their homes, said Adubisi, who has been in daily contact with sources inside the city.
The situation inside the besieged city is further complicated by the fact that in many areas authorities have disconnected the water supply and electricity, leaving residents without fresh water or air conditioning in the scorching Arabian heat, Adubisi said.
The Saudi government has tried to find housing for some of the people who fled Awamiyah, but many residents want to return to their homes, he said.
"Many people feel that this resettlement is part of a government plan to change the demographic composition of Awamiyah," Adubisi said.
Thorn in the side of Riyadh
Ali Al-Ahmed, director of the Washington-based Institute for Gulf Affairs, who hails from the city of Safwa just north of Awamiyah, said the city and the surrounding region of Qatif have long been a thorn in the side of the Saudi regime.
However, the conflict in the Qatif region goes far beyond sectarian strife between the Shia minority and the Sunni majority of the kingdom, Al-Ahmed told RCI in a phone interview from Washington D.C.
"Qatif is different from other Shia areas," Al-Ahmed said. "It has a special independent culture and in terms of political sophistication this area takes the cake — this is where the largest number of political movements were born."
Almost all of the protests in the tightly controlled monarchy originate in Qatif, including the large protests that shook the kingdom in 2011 during the so-called Arab Spring, he said.
Al-Ahmed does not deny that the Saudi forces in Awamiyah are fighting armed militants but he blames the government's heavy-handed crackdown on dissent, including the execution of popular Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, convicted on trumped-up terrorism charges last year, for driving people to take up arms against the government.
Calls to suspend weapons sales
The controversy over the possible use of Canadian-produced Terradyne APCs comes barely a year after the Liberal government approved a $15-billion deal to supply Saudi Arabia with advanced Light Armoured Vehicles (LAVs) made by another Ontario-based manufacturer, General Dynamics Land Systems Canada.
The revelation that Canadian weapons may have been used in support of operations that allegedly targeted civilians have prompted the opposition and human rights groups to call on the Liberal government to suspend all weapons transfers to Saudi Arabia.
The $15-billion deal to supply the LAVs, the largest weapons contract in Canadian history, was signed under the previous Conservative government but was approved by Freeland's Liberal predecessor, Stéphane Dion, in April 2016.
There is no evidence yet of Saudi forces using the LAVs in their crackdown on the Shia minority.