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Riot police with a water cannon block Belarussian opposition supporters during a rally protesting the official presidential election results in Minsk, Belarus, on Sept. 13, 2020.

The Associated Press

They have become a familiar sight during Alexander Lukashenko’s crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Belarus: giant dark-blue armour-clad vehicles, mounted with powerful water cannons that riot police have used to blast Mr. Lukashenko’s opponents off the streets.

Less well known, however, is the Canadian connection behind these crowd-control machines.

On Wednesday, the vehicles could be seen driving through the streets of Minsk, firing heavy streams of water at crowds that came out to protest Mr. Lukashenko’s surprise move to swear himself in for a sixth term as President. The protesters believe Mr. Lukashenko was in fact defeated in an Aug. 9 election by challenger Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.

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The vehicles have been identified by Belarussian journalists as Predator riot-control vehicles, manufactured by Streit Group, a company first established in Ontario in the 1990s by Guerman Goutorov, a Canadian citizen who lives in the United Arab Emirates. Streit still has a manufacturing facility in Midland, Ont.

Lukashenko holds snap inauguration; Belarussian opposition calls for Canadian sanctions

The Globe and Mail has not been able to independently verify the origins of the vehicles used in Belarus, but an examination of photographs and video from Belarus show the riot-control machines bear similarities to models on Streit’s website, including the angular, sloping design and the side vents.

The Streit brand is becoming a common sight in conflict zones around the world, from South Sudan to Libya, as The Globe has previously reported.

But the company appears to be outside the ambit of the Canadian government’s arms-control rules by manufacturing products in the United Arab Emirates. Streit has already been cited by United Nations-appointed panels for violating arms embargoes and selling armoured vehicles to war-torn countries such as South Sudan and Libya.

In Belarus, the Streit riot-control machines are a key part of Mr. Lukashenko’s arsenal as his regime struggles to suppress the daily protests since Aug. 9. Mr. Lukashenko has ruled Belarus since 1994.

Pavel Latushko, a member of the Belarussian opposition’s Co-ordination Council – a seven-member group appointed by Ms. Tikhanovskaya – called for Canada to ignore the inauguration ceremony and to introduce sanctions targeting Mr. Lukashenko and members of his regime.

Mr. Latushko said sanctions should also target companies that have sold military equipment to the Belarussian regime. “If you see the photos, the videos, from the streets of Belarus, you can see how well equipped our police are now. ... Somebody produced this, and somebody sold this to Belarus police.”

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Streit Group, which has a banner on its UAE website declaring “proud to be a UAE Co.,” has not replied to e-mailed questions that were sent in August, and again on Wednesday, by The Globe.

The website advertises the Predator as having three water cannons “with a 5,000-litre water tank, capable of firing water up to 70 metres,” as well as a metal shovel that allows the vehicle to “remove obstacles.” The Predator can also be fitted with grenade launchers for firing smoke and tear-gas canisters.

Franak Viacorka, a Belarussian journalist, said Belarus’s OMON riot police appear to have “dozens” of Predator vehicles that they deploy on a daily basis. In one infamous incident early in the protests, a Predator was used to penetrate opposition barricades around a Minsk shopping mall, allowing riot police to break through and arrest opposition supporters.

“The Predators became the symbol of the crackdown, because at every rally, at every protest, at every gathering we see these blue Predators,” he said. “We saw them used to fight and shoot [water] at the protesters; we saw them used to divide columns [of protesters] into several parts; we saw them used to block the streets and create an artificial fence every Sunday when people approach the Presidential Palace.”

Cesar Jaramillo, executive director of Project Ploughshares, a Canadian disarmament group, said what Mr. Goutorov and Streit are doing appears to fall under the definition of arms brokering, a practice in which a Canadian citizen or company transfers military goods between two foreign countries. As of 2018, Canadian law requires Ottawa to regulate such activities: Permits must be granted by the federal government.

He said that in his meetings with the Canadian government he was left with the impression that Ottawa feels Streit’s foreign manufactured products “are beyond their reach” and that export controls are a matter for the UAE and not for Canada. Mr. Jaramillo disagrees.

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“The Canadian government cannot wash its hands of responsibility with legal technicalities and loopholes,” he said. “This is a company that reaps the benefits of being in Ontario even though it conducts manufacturing in the UAE."

He said he believes Streit should be required to obtain permits for arms brokering as stipulated in 2018 changes to Canadian law.

“If brokering regulations don’t apply to Streit, I don’t know who they would apply to.”

A Canadian official, whom The Globe is not identifying because they are not authorized to talk publicly about arms controls, said Ottawa’s appetite for enforcing arms brokering by Canadians depends on the case. For instance, if the customer was a pariah state such as North Korea, it would be more of a clear-cut priority. The government is also less enthusiastic if there is no evidence of Canadian material, including design schematics, used in the products, they said.

The Canadian government did not immediately respond Wednesday to questions about Streit’s riot control vehicles.

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