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Saudi forces in a graduation ceremony in Riyadh on Tuesday. Amnesty International is pressing the Conservative government for information on an arms deal with Saudi Arabia.FAISAL AL NASSER/Reuters

A leading human-rights watchdog is pressing the Conservative government to lift the veil of secrecy surrounding a $15-billion arms deal Ottawa has inked to sell fighting vehicles to Saudi Arabia, a country notorious for its treatment of women, dissidents and offenders.

The Harper government has stunned rights advocates by refusing to divulge how it is justifying this massive sale to Saudi Arabia under Ottawa's strict export control regime. It is by far the largest military export contract brokered by the Canadian government, and federal rules oblige Ottawa to examine whether arms shipments would further endanger the civilian population in countries with poor human-rights records.

The Conservative administration says it must protect the commercial confidentiality of the arms manufacturer, which in this case is General Dynamics Land Systems Canada.

Amnesty International Canada attacked this rationale in an open letter to Foreign Affairs Minister Rob Nicholson, asking him to intervene to ensure Canadians are apprised of Ottawa's deliberations on the sale of light armoured vehicles (LAVs) to Saudi Arabia.

"There can be no secrecy when it comes to protecting human rights, no matter the country; no matter the context," wrote Alex Neve, the English-branch secretary general for Amnesty International Canada, and Béatrice Vaugrante, secretary general for the French-language branch. "There is no need to reveal sensitive or competitive commercial aspects of the deal. But it is of inescapable importance that the deal's human rights implications be fully assessed and the results shared openly with Canadians."

Both the government, which is the prime contractor on this sale, and General Dynamics refuse to reveal details about the vehicles being sold to to the Saudis for what they call an "Armored Brigade Program."

General Dynamics, which displayed its LAV 6.0 fighting vehicle at an arms fair in Ottawa this week, describes this machine as having "effective firepower to defeat soft and armoured targets." It says options for mounted guns include a 25-mm cannon and 7.62-mm machine guns and smoke grenade launchers.

The company touts this LAV as a Canadian icon, displaying the LAV 6.0 on a poster along with such classic symbols of Canada as a Mountie, poutine and hockey players, with the slogan "Canadian without Compromise."

The Harper government makes no apologies for selling to a human-rights pariah such as Saudi Arabia. Asked for comment on Amnesty International's letter, Mr. Nicholson's office avoided responding to the watchdog's request and instead played up the economic benefits of the deal.

"This export contract, which is the largest in Canadian history, will create and sustain more than 3,000 direct jobs in the advanced manufacturing sector in Southwestern Ontario," spokeswoman Johanna Quinney said. "It will also create thousands of indirect jobs throughout southern Ontario and across Canada by way of a 500-firm supply chain, stretching from coast to coast to coast."

The deal is coming under increased scrutiny after much-publicized incidents of torture and mistreatment by the Saudis, including the flogging sentence for blogger Raif Badawi, whose family obtained refuge in Canada.

The Department of Foreign Affairs, by its own stated rules, is required to screen requests to export military goods to countries "whose governments have a persistent record of serious violations of the human rights of their citizens." It must obtain assurances "there is no reasonable risk that the goods might be used against the civilian population."