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Politics Liberals warned of increase in Saudi human-rights violations before signing arms deal

A security guard stands in front of three Light Armoured Vehicles (LAV) parked on the lot of the General Dynamics/Land Systems factory where they are built in London, Ont., on Wednesday, April 13, 2016.

Dave Chidley

The Trudeau government was warned of worrisome developments in human rights in Saudi Arabia before it made the decision last week to approve export permits for the bulk of a controversial $15-billion arms deal with the Mideast country, a newly released report shows.

More than 20 per cent of the Department of Global Affairs' 2015 "Human Rights Report" was blacked out by government officials before this internal assessment was made public Friday.

"During 2015, concerning human rights trends were reported," the report's summary says of Saudi Arabia, such as "a significant increase in the number of executions, restrictions on universal rights, such as freedom of expression, association and belief, lack of due process and fair trial rights."

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Other findings the report considered troubling include "violations related to physical integrity and security of the person," a reference to the 159 executions in Saudi Arabia last year, as well as the "lack of equal rights for women," who are forbidden from driving. The report was updated on Jan. 2, 2016, to cover the biggest mass executions in Saudi Arabia in decades, an event that killed 47, including a populist dissident Shia Muslim cleric who was a critic of the ruling Al-Saud family.

This assessment was released by Global Affairs on Friday, three months after it was requested by The Globe and Mail.

It comes the same week that University of Montreal Professor Daniel Turp's legal challenge of the combat-vehicle deal revealed the Liberals played an unexpectedly large role in green-lighting the exports.

Documents released to Prof. Turp on Tuesday revealed Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion quietly approved export permits for 70 per cent of the shipments tied to the sale to Riyadh. The minister has absolute authority over permits and exports of weapons are not considered to have been assured until they are granted – a process that obliges Ottawa to consider human rights in the destination country. The Liberals have long said their hands were tied in "a done deal" arranged by the Harper Conservatives. It turns out the Tories had only approved the export of technical data.

Amnesty International Canada secretary-general Alex Neve, whose organization warned in January that human rights in Saudi Arabia have "steadily deteriorated" in the previous 12 months, said he can't understand how Mr. Dion could exercise his ministerial authority and sign the combat-vehicle export permits after reading his department's own report.

"Everything in this human-rights report points to the inevitable conclusion that Canada should not be selling light armoured vehicles to the Saudi military and that export permits allowing this deal to go ahead should not have been been authorized," Mr. Neve said. "The risk that these light armoured vehicles will be used to commit serious human rights violations is simply too high."

Mr. Dion has said he could stop shipments of these vehicles, which will feature machine guns and anti-tank cannons, if Canada learns they are being used to violate rights. Critics note that most will likely be shipped within four years, so that's little leverage.

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The report documents harsh punishment in Saudi Arabia, including that of poet Ashraf Fayadh, now sentenced to an eight-year prison term and 800 lashes after being charged with "spreading atheistic thoughts through his poetry" and accused of "taking photos of women who were not his relatives and storing them on his cellphone."

It says the country, an absolute monarchy, has allowed women to vote and run in municipal elections for councils that have limited decision-making power. "The election of 21 women is … viewed as a positive development, albeit very small."

It notes a United Nations report has accused the Saudi-led Arab coalition of major human rights violations in Yemen – a charge that critics say should move Canada to suspend shipments.

"In December 2015, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad told the UN Security Council that the Saudi-led coalition appears to be responsible for a 'disproportionate amount' of attacks on civilian areas," the report said, adding that 6,000 have been killed – "almost half of them" civilian.

"In two separate incidents in October and December, 2015, air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition hit health facilities operated by Doctors Without Borders, wounding several people."

Joseph Pickerill, director of communications for Mr. Dion, referred to the Minister's April 13 statement on the deal when asked for comment. The Minister said if Canada blocked the combat-vehicle exports and cancelled the contract Ottawa would have less leverage to influence Saudi Arabia to improve its human rights conduct. He noted that current Canada-Saudi relations have led to 16,000 Saudi students studying here "which will help to promote a greater appreciation of Canadian values, including the importance of diversity and gender equality."

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University of Ottawa professor Amir Attaran criticized the amount of information blacked out by Ottawa in the report, saying it surpasses "even the Harper government's censorship of the Afghanistan human rights report at the height of the war," adding "it cannot possibly be legal, and there are obvious presentational difficulties for the Trudeau government's pledge of openness."

Mr. Pickerill said the Liberals "do not interfere" in the process of vetting documents under the Access to Information Act. "Nor should we," he said.

Mr. Attaran pointed out, however, that Section 15 of the Access to Information Act, used to justify redacting parts of the report, leaves discretion over what can be released to the minister. "Mr. Dion, as minister, is like the captain of the ship who is responsible no matter what."

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