Canadian officials are working “with a real sense of urgency” to investigate new reports that Canadian-made military vehicles are being used by Saudi security forces in a violent crackdown in the Shia-populated city of Awamiyah in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said Monday.
New video footage posted online over the weekend appears to show at least one Canadian-made Terradyne Gurkha armoured personnel carrier (APC) operated by the Sunni kingdom’s elite Special Security Forces driving through a devastated neighbourhood of Awamiyah, parts of which now resemble war-ravaged Aleppo or Mosul.
Ali Adubisi, director of the Berlin-based European Saudi Organization for Human Rights told Radio Canada International (RCI), that between 20 and 30 people have been reported killed in a massive security operation involving hundreds of Saudi special police officers backed by dozens of armoured vehicles in Awamiyah, in the Qatif region, home to a large segment of Saudi Arabia’s minority Shia population.
— Angry Qatifi (@AngryQatifi) August 6, 2017
RCI reported two weeks ago that media reports and social media posts from Awamiya, which has been under siege by Saudi security forces since May, showed government forces using what appear to be APCs produced and exported to the oil-rich kingdom by Terradyne Armored Vehicles Inc., a privately owned company based in Newmarket, Ont.
Despite repeated attempts to reach officials at Terradyne, no one from the company was available to comment on the reported use of the company’s APCs by Saudi security forces.
Officials at the Saudi Embassy in Ottawa also did not respond to repeated phone calls and email requests for comment.
‘Very concerned about these reports’
Speaking to reporters on a teleconference call from Manila Monday morning where she attended the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum Ministerial Meeting, Freeland said she was very concerned about these reports.
“I have instructed our department and my officials to very energetically and very carefully review the reports and review the information and research what is happening,” Freeland said. “We are absolutely committed to defend the human rights and we condemn all violations of human rights. We also are very clear that we expect end-users of any and all exports to abide by the terms of our export permits.”
Canadian officials have also expressed their concerns to Saudi authorities, she said.
“On Friday, before I left for Manila, I had a specific conversation with my officials about this and encouraged them to about their work – obviously we have to be careful – but to go about their work with a real sense of urgency.”
- Ottawa scrambles to investigate reported use of Canadian arms in Saudi crackdown
- Ottawa ready to review Saudi arms deals amid crackdown on Shia minority
Freeland said she also discussed the issue with the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini on the sidelines of the ASEAN meeting in Manila.
“I shared with her Canada’s concerns, Canada’s investigation of this matter, because I know that some European member states and the European parliament has the concerns as well,” Freeland said.
In February 2016, in a non-binding vote the European Parliament voted for an EU-wide arms embargo against Saudi Arabia to protest against the kingdom’s heavy bombing campaign in Yemen.
Then in March of last year, the Dutch parliament voted to ban arms exports to Saudi Arabia in protest against the kingdom’s humanitarian and rights violations.
“This is a very important issue, we’re deeply concerned about it and we’re looking into it to determine the facts carefully very actively and energetically,” Freeland said.
Freeland said she keeps the issue under personal control.
“It is something that I’m checking on on a very-very regular basis, this is a serious issue,” she said. “Obviously we have to look into it and investigate carefully and we have to be sure that we’re acting on fully reliable information we can stand by, having said that, we need to act with a real sense of urgency.”
City under siege
عسكري | الجنود يشعرون بالأمان على هذا المبنى المفتوح والمكشوف على كل اتجاه ولا يرتدون سترات واقية ما يعني أن محيط المكان خال من المقاومين. pic.twitter.com/uIirZzdFQi
— ساحة البلد (@SahatAlbalad) August 3, 2017
The urgency also comes from the fact that the security operation in Awamiyah continues unabated.
“Awamiyah is surrounded now by the military,” said Adubisi, who himself fled the city in 2013 after being detained and tortured by Saudi security forces three times. “It has become like a military area controlled by the Saudi military.”
Most of Awamiyah’s 35,000 residents have been forced to flee the city, Adubisi said. Hundreds of houses have been damaged in the fighting between Saudi forces and Shia militants who have put up fierce resistance to defend the city, he said.
The remaining residents of Awamiyah are too afraid of government shelling and snipers to leave their homes, said Adubisi, who has been in daily contact with sources inside the city.
“It’s very dangerous, no one can move in Awamiyah without the fear of being targeted by security forces,” Adubisi said. “Saudi forces occupy high buildings and they target civilians from time to time.”
The situation inside the besieged city is further complicated by the fact that in many areas authorities have disconnected the water supply and electricity, leaving residents without fresh water or air conditioning in the scorching Arabian heat, Adubisi said.
حرب القطيف| قوات بن سلمان ترتكب عمليات تدمير طائفية مرعبة في المناطق الشيعية. pic.twitter.com/gAjQ0QkLrY
— ساحة البلد (@SahatAlbalad) August 5, 2017
The Saudi government has tried to find housing for some of the people who fled Awamiyah, but many residents want to return to their homes, he said.
“Many people feel that this resettlement is part of a government plan to change the demographic composition of Awamiyah,” Adubisi said.
Thorn in the side of Riyadh
Ali Al-Ahmed, director of the Washington-based Institute for Gulf Affairs who hails from the city of Safwa just north of Awamiyah, said the city and the surrounding region of Qatif have long been a thorn in the side of the Saudi regime.
“Since its foundation, the Saudi government has always waged war against the local cultures and the local peoples, especially those who defy it,” Al-Ahmed told RCI in a phone interview from Washington D.C.
However, the conflict in the Qatif region goes far beyond sectarian strife between the Shia minority and the Sunni majority of the kingdom, Al-Ahmed said.
“Qatif is different from other Shia areas,” Al-Ahmed said. “It has a special independent culture and in terms of political sophistication this area takes the cake: this is where the largest number of political movements were born.”
Almost all of the protests in the tightly controlled monarchy originate in Qatif, including the large protests that shook the kingdom in 2011 during the so-called Arab Spring, he said.
“I think the Saudis have for many years tried to suffocate it and they tried using force, and I think they are just escalating the use of force to kind of crack the spirit and the drive and the foundation (of the protest movement),” Al-Ahmed said.
حرب القطيف | آليات حربية تدخل المناطق الشيعية المحاصرة. pic.twitter.com/BzsQQaMalM
— ساحة البلد (@SahatAlbalad) August 5, 2017
Al-Ahmed does not deny that the Saudi forces in Awamiyah are fighting armed militants but he blames the government’s heavy-handed crackdown on dissent, including the execution of popular Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, convicted on trumped-up terrorism charges last year, for driving people to take up arms against the government.
Calls to suspend weapons sales to Saudi Arabia
The controversy with the use of Canadian-produced Terradyne APCs comes barely a year after the Liberal government approved a $15-billion megadeal to supply Saudi Arabia with advanced Light Armoured Vehicles (LAVs) produced by another Ontario-based manufacturer.
The revelation that Canadian weapons may have been used in support of operations that allegedly targeted civilians have prompted the opposition and human rights groups to call on the Liberal government to suspend all weapons transfers to Saudi Arabia.
That includes the controversial deal to supply the kingdom with hundreds of LAV 6.0 produced by General Dynamics Land Systems Canada based in London, Ont., even though there is no evidence yet of Saudi forces using the LAVs in their crackdown on the Shia minority.
The $15-billion deal to supply LAVs to Saudi Arabia, the largest weapons contract in Canadian history, was signed under the previous Conservative government of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper but was personally approved by Freeland’s Liberal predecessor Stéphane Dion in April of 2016.
However, Canadian officials say even if the government withdraws its export permits, under commercial secrets regulations they cannot disclose the names of the companies involved. That information can only be revealed by the company itself, they say.
In 2016, Saudi Arabia accounted for nearly one-fifth of Canada’s defence exports. According to Global Affairs Canada, the oil-rich kingdom bought over $142.2 million worth of weaponry in Canada.