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Human rights report on Saudi Arabia to be ‘sanitized’

A Canadian LAV (light armoured vehicle) arrives to escort a convoy at a forward operating base near Panjwaii, Afghanistan at sunrise on Sunday, Nov.26, 2006.

Bill Graveland/CP

A new assessment of the state of human rights in Saudi Arabia drawn up by the Canadian government will be heavily censored before it is released to the public to remove, among other things, information that could damage Canada-Saudi relations, a veteran public-interest researcher says.

Ken Rubin says he's found evidence that the unclassified version will be missing large chunks of what Ottawa thinks about the Saudis. "The public is getting a sanitized version of the Saudi human rights record."

Saudi Arabia is now Canada's second-biggest customer for military goods after the United States because of a $15-billion deal brokered by Ottawa to supply the Mideast country with combat vehicles – a transaction that will span 14 years until 2028.

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Ottawa is required to carefully monitor Saudi Arabia's conduct, given its abysmal human rights record, to determine whether it should suspend shipments of these armoured machines.

The government at first balked at releasing this 2015 report when The Globe requested it in January, but then reversed itself and said an "unclassified" version of the Global Affairs Canada analysis would be made available when it was ready.

As early as this week Ottawa was still planning to require the media to apply for the unclassified version of this yet-unreleased report under Access to Information law – a bureaucratic process that would cost money and further delay release – but Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion's office waived this step after questions from The Globe and Mail.

The extent of information being removed came to light only when Mr. Rubin filed a request under Access to Information for earlier, draft versions of this report. These are the working copies before a final, unclassified version is prepared for release.

Access to Information analyst Tamara Papin warned Mr. Rubin in a March 18 e-mail that earlier versions of this report "will be heavily redacted" under a federal law that allows Ottawa to censor documents. She justified this under Section 15 of the Access to Information Act, which, among other things, allows the withholding of information that "could reasonably be expected to be injurious to the conduct of international affairs." Additional content will be redacted under Section 21, which allows Ottawa to keep confidential advice prepared for a government institution or cabinet minister.

Joe Pickerill, director of communications for Mr. Dion, said what can or cannot be released from this report is up to the Access to Information Act, not the minister's office. "I have absolutely no say or insight into the redaction of these documents."

Mr. Rubin said the heavily edited rights assessment serves to lessen Canada's embarrassment over a controversial transaction with a country ranked among "the worst of the worst" on human rights by Freedom House. "This in turn provides greater cover to the issuing of export permits for lucrative arms deals," he says.

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