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Canadian gear used by Saudi security forces in deadly house raid

Saudi Arabia is Canada’s biggest overseas arms buyer, thanks to a $15-billion deal struck by Ottawa to sell weaponized armoured vehicles made by General Dynamics Land Systems Canada to Riyadh.

Dave Chidley/The Globe and Mail

Canadian-made tactical equipment that helps authorities blast their way into buildings has surfaced in Saudi Arabia at the scene of a violent house raid by government security forces in late June that left one man dead in a region home to the country's oppressed Shia minority.

It is another example of how Canadian-made military, security and tactical gear sold to the Saudi regime can be used in circumstances well beyond Ottawa's control and during raids that some believe are attacks on dissidents. The Trudeau government in April approved export permits to supply Riyadh with combat vehicles made in London, Ont., a deal that has been sharply criticized by human-rights activists.

The house raid on June 22 took place in the Qatif region of Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province, where the largest concentration of Shiites live in a country ruled by an overwhelming Sunni majority. Rights groups regularly report on how Shiites face major discrimination in Saudi Arabia, where they only make up 10 per cent to 15 per cent of the population. Shiites chafe at this second-class status, making Qatif a hotbed of opposition and trouble for the reigning House of Saud.

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On the night of June 22, Saudi security forces stormed a Shiite-owned house in the town of al-Awamiyah. A man named Abdul-Rahim al-Faraj died as a result of gunshots, Saudi-based media reported. Authorities said in a statement, as they often do in similar cases in Eastern Province, that they only fired their weapons after being fired upon and that the deceased and one of his brothers were wanted for "terrorist crimes."

After security forces departed, local residents found explosive breaching equipment with "Made in Canada" stamped on it at the targeted house in al-Awamiya, according to the European-Saudi Organization for Human Rights. The residents say the gear, which had been blown apart, was used by Saudi forces to blast their way through a gate that provided access to the house.

The black plastic equipment's label and model number obtained at the scene correspond to gear produced by Gryphon Engineering Services of Ottawa that allows military or law enforcement to quickly force their way into a building.

The Canadian company places restrictions on the sale of this gear on its website, saying this product "is only available for government use." This specially designed "entry frame" breaching equipment, patented by Gryphon, is designed to be lined with explosive and filled with water – which helps direct the ensuing blast into a structure.

Gryphon Engineering Services did not respond to e-mails from The Globe and Mail. A man who answered the door at the company's east-end Ottawa office said the company has no comment.

Ottawa doesn't control or track the use of this type of tactical equipment overseas.

Related: Saudis use armoured vehicles to suppress internal dissent, videos show

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Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher with Human Rights Watch, said Saudi Arabian authorities over the past half-decade have taken to framing all Shia protesters and dissidents as terrorists. "That's definitely a trend we've seen over the last four to five years."

A fundamental tenet of Canadian export-control policy is the question of whether goods sold to foreign customers might be used to commit human-rights violations. If products shipped abroad are being used for this purpose – or present a high risk of enabling human-rights violations – a country is supposed to block or cease these transactions.

Mr. Coogle said Canadians should be specifically worried about this in relation to sales of tactical and military equipment to Saudi Arabian government forces.

"I think this absolutely meets that standard" of warranted concern, Mr. Coogle said of sales of breaching equipment to Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia is Canada's biggest overseas arms buyer, thanks to a $15-billion deal struck by Ottawa to sell weaponized armoured vehicles made by General Dynamics Land Systems Canada to Riyadh. The Liberal government has taken heavy criticism for its decision to stick with the contract and for approving the bulk of the exports in this deal despite what watchdogs such as Amnesty International say has been an eroding state of human rights in Saudi Arabia.

Explainer: The Saudi arms deal: Why it's a big deal

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Similar raids to the one on June 22 in Qatif happen on a regular basis, often resulting in the deaths of Shia residents.

As with past incidents, the Saudi government explained the June 22 incident by saying that Mr. al-Faraj died because Saudi forces were fired upon while trying to search the dwelling. In a statement, the Saudi Ministry of the Interior alleged he and his brother were "involved in a number of terrorist crimes" including "shooting at security forces" and "armed robbery."

The Saudis frequently cite terror threats when they go after the area's dissidents, some of whom are more militant than others.

Shia activists say local police had three times summoned Mr. al-Faraj to the local police station for questioning about the whereabouts of one of his brothers.

Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion's office referred questions about Canadian exports of this explosive breaching equipment to civil servants in the Department of Global Affairs. The "items are neither explosives nor arms," said Diana Khaddaj, a spokeswoman for Global Affairs.

She said Ottawa does not monitor or restrict exports of this specialized breaching equipment because it is not sold with explosives loaded in it.

Human-rights groups have already called on Western countries to stop selling military equipment to Saudi Arabia given its bloody intervention in a civil war in neighbouring Yemen. A United Nations panel has alleged that Riyadh has violated international humanitarian law for indiscriminate bombing of civilians in Yemen.

Mr. Coogle, however, said the Saudis' treatment of their own people, and in particular minority groups, should be a major red flag for exports. "These domestic policing actions – there are real concerns as to whether the Saudis engage in excessive use of force and there's also concern about the people they target in these raids – whether they are actually perpetrators of violence or not because the Saudi justice system is so unfair, people don't get a fair hearing and we never really know what the truth is."

Mr. Coogle said he has analyzed eight full Saudi trials of people who were involved in Eastern Province uprisings and protest-related activities. "Every case I read, and the way the trial process occurred, was absolutely ludicrous," he said.

"They don't even make an attempt at due process. They basically arrest them, torture until they sign a confession."

The arrest, and ultimate execution, of Shia cleric Sheik Nimr al-Nimr in January has further inflamed tensions between Qatif and Riyadh. An outspoken critic of the House of Saud who called for its removal, he supported anti-government protests in Eastern Province.

His trial and sentencing – for disobeying the ruler, inciting sectarian strife and encouraging, leading and participating in demonstrations – reignited criticism of Saudi Arabia's justice system.

Human Rights Watch, citing figures from local activists, estimated recently that more than 200 people from Shia-majority towns and villages in Eastern Province have gone to trial for alleged protest-related crimes since 2011.

In May, The Globe and Mail published footage from Shia activists in Qatif showing Riyadh's forces using armoured vehicles against civilians. The vehicles that were deployed are not Canadian-made, but they demonstrate the Saudis' proclivity to use such machines against their people.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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