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Canada Professor has no legal right to fight Saudi arms deal, Ottawa says

A colonel, who commands the Saudi forces in Yemen's southern port city of Aden, talks to his soldiers in their base in Aden September 28, 2015.

Faisal Nasser/Reuters

Federal government lawyers say a University of Montreal law professor who is challenging a $15-billion sale of combat vehicles to Saudi Arabia has no business fighting it in court because he is not personally a victim of a crime under humanitarian law.

Daniel Turp, a professor and former Parti Québécois politician, is trying to halt the military export. The case wrapped up in Federal Court on Tuesday with Ottawa arguing international human-rights treaties do not apply to Canada's sale of fighting vehicles.

The deal brokered by the Harper government and endorsed by the Trudeau government is controversial because watchdog groups often rank Saudi Arabia as one of the worst abusers of human rights on the planet. The country is accused of violating international humanitarian law on a military mission in Yemen to quash a rebellion.

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Ottawa counters that there is no evidence Saudi Arabia has ever used Canadian light-armoured vehicles that it bought earlier against civilians.

In April, Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion approved export permits for the deal, which is one of the largest advanced manufacturing export contracts in Canadian history and represents thousands of jobs for London-based General Dynamics Land Systems Canada and its suppliers across the country.

Federal lawyer Vincent Veilleux said Mr. Turp has no right to invoke the Geneva Convention in the case, which is before Justice Danièle Tremblay-Lamer. The law, he said, is meant to require states to protect human rights in times of war, and the professor falls out of that scope.

"The Geneva Convention certainly wasn't intended to bring forward a cause from someone who is not himself in an armed conflict," Mr. Veilleux said. "Countries jealously protect their sovereignty. They agreed to these conventions in an extremely limited scope."

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Anne-Julie Asselin, a lawyer representing Mr. Turp, said it was never his intention to suggest he has rights like a victim of war crimes.

"But if only a Yemeni who has had his house blown up is allowed to raise an objection in Canadian courts, then Mr. Dion's actions would never be questioned," Ms. Asselin said.

Mr. Turp, who also has represented the Bloc Québécois, has taken past federal governments to court to protest against international actions. He has sued Ottawa over potential participation in the Iraq war, the handling of detainees in Afghanistan and the Conservative government's decision to withdraw from the Kyoto climate-change protocol. None of those cases were successful.

Federal lawyers referred to the previous cases as "Turp 1, Turp 2 and Turp 3." They asked Justice Tremblay-Lamer to force him to pay costs should he lose the current case, an apparent attempt to discourage any future Turp 5.

André Lespérance, another of Mr. Turp's lawyers and a former federal lawyer, objected, saying such a move would have a chilling effect on citizens challenging their government.

The judge said she would take it into consideration. She did not set a date for delivering her ruling, but it is likely to be well into the New Year.

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Mr. Turp clashed with Mr. Dion previously during national-unity battles after the 1995 Quebec referendum on sovereignty, but he said that had nothing to do with the current challenge.

After the hearings, Mr. Turp said he was motivated by the thought Saudi Arabia could use Canadian weapons to preserve its dictatorship. "I had a certain indignation we would export arms to Saudi Arabia. There may not be another country that so systematically abuses rights," he said.

His other cases were intended to present credible arguments on preserving human rights, he said, and the request that he cover Ottawa's costs for everything from experts to photocopying will not stop him from pursuing future cases.

"I found it surprising. Even the government admits it's a question of public interest," he said, noting Ottawa never challenged his legal standing to make the argument before this week's hearings.

"I've never taken any action I knew would be futile or illusory. I think the judge was sympathetic on this point, but at the end of the day they won't intimidate me."

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