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Prime Minister Stephen Harper tours the General Dynamics Land Systems - Canada plant, next to a LAV 6.0 (Light Armoured Vehicle) being built for Canada, at the facility in London, Ont., Friday, May 2, 2014. The company is also manufacturing vehicles being sold to Saudi Arabia as part of a controversial $15-billion deal.Dave Chidley/The Canadian Press

Stephen Harper is refusing to apologize for signing a contract to sell $15-billion of armoured fighting vehicles to Saudi Arabia, a country attracting increased global attention for its abysmal human-rights record.

The Conservative Leader said on Friday that the only thing Canada would achieve by cancelling the lucrative deal is to destroy thousands of factory jobs.

With slightly more than three weeks left before the federal election, Mr. Harper is facing questions on the campaign trail about a 2014 arms contract with a country notorious for its treatment of women, minorities and dissidents and long accused of exporting Islamic fundamentalism.

Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe thrust the matter into the spotlight during this week's French-language debate when he challenged Mr. Harper over the transaction.

On Friday, Mr. Harper defended the deal as business with a country that is a partner in the battle to stop Islamic State militants.

"This is a deal, frankly, with a country [that] notwithstanding its human rights violations, which are significant … is an ally in the fight against the Islamic State," he told reporters in Rivière-de-Loup, Que. "[It's] a contract that any one of our allies would have signed. It is the largest contract in Canadian history."

He said Canada should not lose out on business because it does not approve of how Saudi Arabia is run, noting the deal supports 3,000 jobs in the region around London, Ont.

"Look, we express our outrage, our disagreement from time to time with the government of Saudi Arabia for their treatment of human rights. I don't think it makes any sense to pull a contract in a way that would only punish Canadian workers instead of actually expressing our outrage against some of these things in Saudi Arabia," Mr. Harper said to applause from Conservative Party supporters.

This is no ordinary transaction between a Canadian company and a foreign government.

In this deal, the Canadian government is the prime contractor, responsible for delivery of light armoured vehicles to Riyadh. These LAVs are regularly advertised as coming equipped with 25-mm guns.

Ottawa used its diplomatic resources to lobby the Saudis hard for this contract, and is fronting the deal on behalf of General Dynamics Land Systems Canada, a Canadian subsidiary of a major U.S. defence contractor.

Amnesty International has calculated that Saudi Arabia has executed more than 175 people in the past 12 months, and Canada is being pressed to do more for Raif Badawi, a blogger with Canadian ties who has been sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for criticism in his blog, which promotes human rights and democracy in his country.

Cesar Jaramillo, executive director of Project Ploughshares, an anti-war group that tracks military sales, said Mr. Harper's defence creates a "slippery slope" of logic. "It seems clear the economic prosperity of London, Ont., is being tied to the violation of human rights in Saudi Arabia. What would stop Canada from selling arms to North Korea or [the Islamic State] if it would create jobs," he said. "Where do you draw the line?"

The federal government refuses to explain how the deal fits with this country's export control regime, which places obstacles in the way of shipments to nations with poor human-rights records.

"We have heard loud and clear what the economic justification is," Mr. Jaramillo said. "What we have not heard is how the deal can be justified from a human-rights perspective."

Ottawa and General Dynamics will not reveal details about the vehicles being sold to the Saudis for what they call an armoured brigade program.

General Dynamics touts its LAV as a Canadian icon, marketing the LAV 6.0 on a poster along with such classic symbols of Canada as a Mountie, poutine and hockey players.

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