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Court rejects Ottawa's bid to halt Saudi arms deal lawsuit

A Saudi Arabia flag is seen flying on Parliament Hill Nov. 2 in Ottawa.

Dave Chan/Dave Chan

A Federal Court judge has rejected the Trudeau government's attempt to sink a fresh legal challenge of the $15-billion sale of weaponized armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia, saying evidence last summer showing Canadian-made machines being deployed in a Saudi neighbourhood has breathed life into the matter.

This means a new lawsuit to block these arms exports will be allowed to proceed and Ottawa will be forced to shed light on what happened in the summer of 2017 when Canadian-made armoured vehicles were filmed and photographed taking part in a fight between Riyadh and residents of the Saudi kingdom's Eastern Province.

This is University of Montreal law professor Daniel Turp's second attempt to block exports of $15-billion of Canadian-made light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia, a country with an abysmal human-rights record. In January, 2017, a different Federal Court judge rejected his lawsuit, noting there was no evidence demonstrating Canadian machines had been used against the civilian population. That decision is still under appeal.

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In July, however, for the first time, videos and photos surfaced showing the Saudis wielding Canadian-made armoured vehicles against the population in Awamiyah, a minority Shia Muslim area.

Armoured vehicles made by Terradyne of Newmarket, Ont., were featured in this footage but one clip also showed combat machines made by General Dynamics Land Systems' factory in London, Ont., being deployed.

The House of Saud's use of Canadian fighting vehicles against its Shia population in eastern Saudi Arabia goes to the heart of a long-running controversy over whether the Trudeau government is violating Canada's weapons export-control rules.

The rules call for restrictions on arms exports to countries with a "persistent record of serious violations of the human rights of their citizens." Shipments are supposed to be blocked if there is a real risk the buyer could turn arms against its own population.

In July, after The Globe and Mail's reporting of conflict in Awamiyah, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland issued a statement saying she was "deeply concerned" and announced a probe of the incident.

The Trudeau government has never released the results of this investigation nor has it explained to Canadians what happened. In September, Prof. Turp launched his second legal challenge of the $15-billion deal to sell more General Dynamics light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia. These vehicles are equipped with medium-gauge machine guns and anti-tank cannons and Ottawa has billed this as the largest advanced-manufacturing export contract in Canadian history.

Federal government lawyers asked the Federal Court to dismiss Prof. Turp's new challenge, saying it was doomed to fail and was redundant because the first lawsuit had been rejected.

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In a ruling released Tuesday, Justice Luc Martineau disagreed. He said the appearance of Canadian vehicles during acts of repression in Saudi Arabia last summer merits further examination.

"I agree with the applicant that this application for judicial review raises a new cause of action in the light of the new facts alleged in the notice of application," Justice Martineau wrote. "Between April and August 2017, Saudi armed forces occupied the majority Shia neighbourhood of Awamiyah in the Qatif region," the judge observed. "During that period, acts of repression were perpetrated against the population. We can even see images of Canadian armoured vehicles. These incidents were reported in the media and were the subject of various reports by humanitarian groups. The Saudi state defended itself by stating it acted to combat terrorism in the region."

The deal opposed by Prof. Turp was brokered by the Harper government, but it was the Trudeau government in early 2016 that sanctioned the export of the armoured vehicles.

The federal government had argued Prof. Turp's new challenge should not be allowed to proceed because Ms. Freeland has made no decision regarding armoured vehicle exports since launching an investigation in the summer of 2017.

Justice Martineau rejected that. "The lack of transparency of the decision-making process is not a safeguard precluding the Court from examining the legality of any ministerial action," he wrote.

"Canada has directly engaged the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to underline the importance of ensuring its security operations respect international human rights law. We have engaged repeatedly with Saudi leaders and authorities on the protection of human rights," department spokesman John Babcock said.

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He added that Ottawa is "closely reviewing" the decision.

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