Ottawa ready to review Saudi arms deals amid crackdown

The federal government is “deeply concerned” about a violent crackdown on alleged Shia militants in Saudi Arabia, where security forces have apparently used Canadian-produced armoured vehicles.

Canadian-made armoured vehicles apparently used by government forces in crackdown on Shia town

A still image taken from a video posted on Twitter appears to show a Canadian-made Terradyne Gurkha armoured personnel carrier (APC) on the streets of Awamiya in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. The APC is produced by Terradyne Armored Vehicles Inc. in Newmarket, Ont. (Sahat-al-Balad/Twitter)

The federal government is "deeply concerned" that Canadian-made armoured vehicles may have been used in a violent crackdown underway in Saudi Arabia and is prepared to take action if human rights were violated, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada said Friday.

At least five people have been reported killed since Wednesday in a massive security operation involving hundreds of Saudi special police officers backed by dozens of armoured vehicles in the town of Awamiya, in the country's restive Eastern Province, home to a large segment of Saudi Arabia's minority Shia population.

Media reports and social media posts from the town of Awamiya, which has been under siege by Saudi security forces since May, show government forces using what appear to be armoured personnel carriers (APCs) produced and exported to the oil-rich kingdom by Terradyne Armored Vehicles Inc., a privately owned company based in Newmarket, Ont.

A still image taken from a video posted on Twitter appears to show a Terradyne Gurkha APC on the streets of Awamiya in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. (Anthony Fenton/Twitter)

Experts consulted by Radio Canada International confirm that vehicles pictured in news reports and social media posts are indeed Terradyne Gurkha APCs.

"Combination/colour of vehicles (the one with turret is a UR-416) indicates they are Special Security Forces," Jeremy Binnie, the Middle East/Africa editor at IHS Jane's Defence Weekly, confirmed on Twitter after studying news reports and social media posts of the Saudi security operation.

Global Affairs spokesperson John Babcock says Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland is "deeply concerned about this situation and has asked officials to review it immediately." 

"If it is found that Canadian exports have been used to commit serious violations of human rights, the minister will take action."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reiterated those sentiments, telling reporters in Winnipeg Saturday that he takes the allegations very seriously and his government is following up. 

Speaking in French, Trudeau said Canada is looking into whether the terms of the export contacts, including respecting Canadian values, were respected.

Despite repeated attempts to reach officials at Terradyne since Wednesday, no one from the company was available to comment on the reported use of the company's APCs by Saudi security forces.

Officials at the Saudi Embassy in Ottawa also did not respond to repeated phone calls and an email request for comment.

Human rights groups are calling on the federal government to cancel permits for the export of Canadian military and defence equipment to Saudi Arabia.

Experts consulted by Radio Canada International confirm that vehicles pictured in news reports and social media posts are indeed Terradyne Gurkha APCs. (Anthony Fenton/Twitter)

The unrest in the Eastern Province comes as Saudi Arabia's top court has upheld the death sentences of 14 Shia men convicted of armed attacks after what Amnesty International called "a grossly unfair mass trial."

At least 66 people have been executed in Saudi Arabia since the start of 2017, including 26 in the past three weeks alone — more than one execution per day, Amnesty said in its recent report on human rights in the country.

"Mounting tensions and conflict in eastern Saudi Arabia, about which the Canadian government has rightly expressed public concern, further indicate how fraught it is for Canada to have authorized the sale of light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia at this time," Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada, said in a statement to RCI.

While the social media footage appears to show armoured vehicles produced by Terradyne, Amnesty International is also calling on the federal government to cancel the lucrative $15-billion deal to supply Light Armoured Vehicles (LAVs) produced by General Dynamics Land Systems Canada based in London, Ont.

"Indications that Canadian-made armoured vehicles are perhaps being utilized as Saudi forces mobilize in the east of the country highlight how crucial it is that the government intervene and put an immediate end to the Canadian/Saudi LAV deal," Neve said.

Canadian soldiers are shown in an upgraded light armoured vehicle, at a news conference at a General Dynamics facility in London, Ont., in January 2012. (Mark Spowart/Canadian Press)

Questions about export risk assessments

If confirmed, the reports out of Saudi Arabia raise further questions about the thoroughness and reliability of Ottawa's risk assessment for military exports, said Cesar Jaramillo, executive director of the peace group Project Ploughshares.

"Both Ottawa's earlier public commitments and the provisions of the Arms Trade Treaty, which Canada will soon join, call for a reassessment of existing military export authorizations, should there be new, relevant information," Jaramillo said.

"In the view of Project Ploughshares, recent reports — if confirmed — constitute exactly that: new, relevant information."

Canadian officials are aware of reports that the Saudi security operations in the district of Qatif have led to casualties of civilians and security forces, Babcock, the Global Affairs spokesperson, said.

"The government is actively seeking more information about Saudi Arabia's current efforts to deal with its security challenges, the reports of civilian casualties, and the reports that Canadian-made vehicles have been used by Saudi Arabia in its current security operations," Babcock said. "Canada will review all available information as it determines an appropriate course of action."

Canada expects the end user of any and all exports to abide by the end use terms in issued export permits, he said.

"The end use and end user of exports, as well as regional stability and human rights, are essential considerations in the authorization of permits for the export of military goods from Canada," Babcock said.

"The government has expressed its concerns to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia that its internal security operations be conducted in a manner consistent with international human rights law."