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Politics Canada willing to freeze armoured vehicle exports to Saudi Arabia over Khashoggi, Trudeau says, but notes difficulty in ending contract

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he’s willing to freeze exports of armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia, as the opposition presses the federal government to follow Germany’s lead in suspending military shipments to the kingdom over the alleged murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Saudi Arabia is the second-biggest arms market for both Canada and Germany, purchasing about half a billion dollars in military goods from each annually. Berlin froze all exports Sunday until the Khashoggi investigation is concluded, but Ottawa has not matched that action.

But in Question Period on Monday, Mr. Trudeau noted his government has committed to strengthening arms export controls in Bill C-47.

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He then added, “We have frozen export permits before, when we had concerns about their potential misuse, and we will not hesitate to do so again.”

Canada's Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland uses the translation aid during a news conference with Mexico's Secretary-designate of Foreign Affairs Marcelo Ebrard and Secretary-designate for Economy Graciela Marquez in Ottawa on Oct. 22, 2018.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

He was referring to August, 2017, when his government stopped approving permits for arms exports to Saudi Arabia after it began an investigation into Riyadh’s deployment of Canadian-made armoured vehicles against Saudi citizens. Ottawa also temporarily suspended export permits issued for the armoured-vehicle maker whose machines were photographed and videotaped taking part in the crackdown.

In an interview on CBC on Tuesday, Mr. Trudeau said it would be “very difficult” to outright scrap the $13-billion deal signed by Canada’s previous Conservative government and a Canadian unit of U.S. weapons maker General Dynamics Corp.

Trudeau said the 2014 agreement for light armoured vehicles had been written in such a way that taxpayers would have to pay a large amount of money to end it.

Trudeau added that he found it “incredibly frustrating” that the terms of the contract with the Saudis meant he could not discuss it in more detail.

Related: Saudi officials planned ‘savage’ killing of Jamal Khashoggi for days, Turkey’s Erdogan says

Read more: Who killed Jamal Khashoggi and why? Here’s what we know so far

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Questions over how Canada would react to Saudi Arabia over Mr. Khashoggi’s alleged murder dominated a Monday news conference called by Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and International Trade Minister James Carr to showcase meetings with ministers from Mexican president-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s incoming administration.

Ms. Freeland repeated past condemnations of Mr. Khashoggi’s killing in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and called again for a transparent investigation into what happened. Mr. Trudeau did the same in response to opposition queries in Question Period.

But when it came to what measures Canada might actually take, Ms. Freeland was less definitive.

Asked why Canada is going ahead with a massive sale of armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia even though Germany no longer considers Riyadh a trustworthy trading partner, Ms. Freeland responded: “That’s a very good question. Jamal Khashoggi’s death is a very serious, grave incident in Canada’s eyes. We still have many questions about this incident. The explanations are not credible and they are not sufficient.”

Asked what it would take for Canada to cancel the light armoured vehicle sale, Ms. Freeland continued: “That is an important question and that is a very serious issue. Our government is having very serious conversations within the government … as well as with its allies.”

In Question Period, NDP foreign affairs critic Hélène Laverdière accused the government of doublespeak. “The government claims to defend human rights on one hand, and on the other hand they arm one of the world’s worst human-rights offenders. Saudi Arabia is leading a military coalition that has been accused of war crimes in Yemen, where 12 million people could starve to death due to the armed conflict. Can the government stop the doublespeak – and stop arming rogue nations like Saudi Arabia?”

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Last year, Canada exported $497-million worth of military goods to Saudi Arabia, according to Global Affairs Canada, making the Saudi monarchy Canada’s largest defence customer after the United States.

Mr. Trudeau rejected the suggestion the government is doing nothing. He said Ms. Freeland “has been having ongoing and active conversations with our allies about next steps and how to work collaboratively. We strongly demand, and expect, that Canadian exports are used in a way that fully respects human rights.”

Mr. Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist living in self-imposed exile in a suburb of Washington, vanished on Oct. 2 after entering the consulate to obtain papers so he could marry his Turkish fiancée.

Saudi Arabia initially claimed Mr. Khashoggi left the consulate a short time after arriving. But Turkish pro-government newspapers said Mr. Khashoggi was actually killed and dismembered with a bone saw by a 15-man assassination squad dispatched from Riyadh.

On Friday, Saudi Arabia admitted Mr. Khashoggi was killed in the consulate but said his death was the result of a fistfight. It said 18 Saudi nationals had been detained and two top security officials fired.

On Monday, further details of Mr. Khashoggi’s alleged murder emerged. Video that CNN described as law enforcement surveillance footage showed a member of the Saudi team dressed in Mr. Khashoggi’s clothes to make it appear that he had left the consulate.

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In an effort to demonstrate Canada is taking the alleged murder seriously, the Prime Minister’s Office announced that Mr. Trudeau has convened a high-level committee designed for emergency matters to discuss how Ottawa might respond.

“This morning, the Prime Minister convened a meeting with the Incident Response Group,” his office announced. “The group, which includes cabinet ministers and senior government officials, discussed the latest developments concerning the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as well as Canada’s ongoing dialogue with our international allies on this matter.”

On Sunday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the killing of Mr. Khashoggi a “monstrosity” and vowed to halt German arms exports to Saudi Arabia until the case is cleared up. “It must be cleared up. As long as it’s not cleared up, there will be no arms exports to Saudi Arabia. I assure you of that very decidedly,” she said.

So far this year, the German government had approved weapons exports worth more than €400-million ($600-million) to Saudi Arabia, making Riyadh the second-biggest recipient of German arms after Algeria.

In Canada’s case, arms sales to Saudi Arabia are primarily linked to a 14-year deal to export weaponized armoured vehicles to the Mideast kingdom. The previous, Conservative government inked the deal, but it was the current government that gave much-needed final approval for the military exports in 2016.

U.S. President Donald Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, signalled Monday that they were afraid of damaging their country’s relationship with Saudi Arabia by holding the kingdom to account over the killing of Mr. Khashoggi.

“I don’t want to lose all that investment that’s been made in our country,” Mr. Trump told reporters at the White House. "I don’t want to lose a million jobs. I don’t want to lose $110-billion in terms of investment. But it’s really $450-billion if you include other than military. So that’s very important.”

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman this year held out the possibility of US$400-billion worth of Saudi investment in U.S. business projects. Riyadh also owns a significant chunk of U.S. debt and is the top purchaser of American military equipment. Mr. Trump has previously indicated that a desire to continue selling weapons to Saudi Arabia is a factor in deciding how to handle the Khashoggi case.

The President did, however, say on Monday that he wasn’t convinced by Saudi Arabia’s shifting explanations of what happened to the journalist.

“I am not satisfied with what I’ve heard,” he said. “We’re going to get to the bottom of it.”

With reports from Reuters and The Canadian Press

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