Footage analyzed by The Globe and Mail shows Saudi Arabia using armoured vehicles against minority Shia Muslim dissidents in the Mideast country's Eastern Province, raising serious questions about Riyadh's tendency to use these military goods against its own citizens.
Copies of the videos, which date from 2012 and 2015, were supplied by Saudi human-rights activists who want Canada to suspend shipments of combat vehicles to Riyadh in a $15-billion deal between Canada and the ruling House of Saud.
The Trudeau government in April approved export permits for the bulk of these vehicle shipments in what Ottawa calls the largest advanced manufacturing export contract in Canadian history. The vehicles, made in London, Ont., are expected to ship over four years, and will have machine guns and anti-tank cannons.
Saudi Arabia is an extremely closed society that U.S. rights and democracy watchdog Freedom House last year called "one of the most repressive media environments in the world." The Globe and Mail requested access to tour Saudi Arabia through the country's Canadian embassy in January, but received no reply.
The combat vehicles in the videos are not Canadian-made, but they demonstrate the regime's inclination to use such military assets against its own people in a region that is very difficult for Canada to monitor. It also casts doubt on the Liberal government's assurances that the massive arms sale to Saudi Arabia presents no risks for the country's civilians.
Ali Adubisi, director of the Berlin-based European-Saudi Organization for Human Rights, says Saudi authorities have deployed armoured vehicles against Shia civilians in Eastern Province more than 15 times since 2011.
He says this should be reason enough to strike Saudi Arabia from Canada's list of arms buyers.
"I think it's clear now that Saudi Arabia doesn't hesitate to use this weapon," he said. "It's totally clear [the Canadian deal] will help Saudi Arabia to [commit] more violence against civilians."
Saudi human rights activists have gathered videos and photos, many of which have circulated on social media within the Mideast and more broadly, showing what they say are Saudi armoured vehicles firing on protesters or residential buildings in Eastern Province, or the damage wrought by these machines on people, residential areas and property. These records include photos of civilians allegedly killed by Saudi authorities.
The Globe and Mail undertook analysis of videos of two of these incidents in co-operation with Middle Eastern human-rights researchers to determine that the footage was indeed shot in Saudi Arabia. Excerpts from the videos, which activists say document events in the al-Qatif region in February, 2012, and April, 2015, can be seen on The Globe and Mail's website.
In the first video, researchers identified a Saudi automatic banking machine and license plate, and were able to find the location on Google Maps' satellite photo, including a nearby mosque. One researcher, Cilina Nasser, spoke with local residents to verify the location. In the video, masked protesters are seen evading armoured vehicles that are entering a town square. There are sounds of gunfire and protesters are hit. Voices can also be heard referring to a gun.
In analyzing two videos of the event in April, 2015, another Saudi bank machine sign, as well as fresh photos from the purported location, where a building is now being rebuilt, helped corroborate that the incident took place in Saudi Arabia. In those videos, armoured vehicles are seen outside a building and firing can be heard.
The Saudi government regularly says raids and operations in Eastern Province are necessary to combat terrorism. In the April, 2015, incident, in which a Saudi police officer died and the targeted Shia appear to be firing back, Riyadh told the local media it was going after "terrorist elements" as well as their weapons and communications equipment. In January, 2016, the Saudis allowed a CNN TV crew to visit al-Awamiya in the al-Qatif region but only after warning the journalists it was unsafe to visit.
The Globe recently invited officials from Saudi Arabia's embassy in Canada to view the videos, either at the embassy or at Globe offices, and provide comment. The embassy's response was to issue a brief statement that said: "Saudi Arabia has entered into a contract for the purchase of light armoured vehicles from a manufacturer in Canada. We believe the deal is good for both Saudi Arabia and Canada, creating jobs and investment."
The Saudis' use of combat machines against its Shia population goes to the very heart of the controversy over whether the Trudeau government is breaking Canada's weapons export-control rules.
The export-control regime clearly stipulates that Ottawa must not issue export permits for weapons sales to countries with poor human-rights records "unless it can be demonstrated that there is no reasonable risk that the goods might be used against the civilian population."
Saudi Arabia is regularly ranked among the "worst of the worst" on human rights by Freedom House, and Amnesty International warned earlier this year of an erosion in rights there. A recent report from the Global Affairs department warned the Trudeau government of worrisome developments in human rights in Saudi Arabia before it approved export permits for the $15-billion arms deal in April. "During 2015, concerning human rights trends were reported," the report's summary says of Saudi Arabia, such as "a significant increase in the number of executions, restrictions on universal rights, such as freedom of expression, association and belief, lack of due process and fair trial rights."
Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion himself cited Freedom House's work on May 3, when he saluted World Press Freedom Day in a statement.
In April, Mr. Dion was asked during a meeting with The Globe and Mail's editorial board whether the Canadian government had seen videos of armoured vehicles being used against Saudi civilians before the Liberals decided to approve export permits.
He said Ottawa studied a wide array of information.
"They have looked at everything and they made their recommendations," Mr. Dion said of Global Affairs, which advised him he should sign the export permits. "If you come with evidence that they didn't see, they are professionals; they will look at that."
A huge coalition of human rights, development and arms control groups in late April urged Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to rescind what they called an "immoral and unethical" decision to approve export permits for the Saudi Arabian deal, warning there is a reasonable risk Riyadh will use the vehicles against its own citizens and in the Saudi military mission in neighbouring Yemen.
Mr. Adubisi is the latest opponent to add his voice to the debate, and he said he met with a Canadian government representative in March to make his case.
Only about 10 to 15 per cent of Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia's population is Shia, largely concentrated in the Eastern Province, which is also home to most of the Mideast country's oil production. Western human rights groups accuse Saudi Arabia of discriminating against the Shia minority.
Eastern Province is the birthplace of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a popular dissident cleric from the region who was killed by Saudi authorities in mass executions this past January. The Shia Muslim leader was an outspoken critic of the ruling House of Saud, had called for its removal and supported anti-government protests in the province.
Analysts and activists say the Shia protesters have grown more militant in recent years.
"The protest movement was largely peaceful since 2011. The security forces used harsh repression and some people started to shoot at the police, particularly in [al-Awamiya]," said Toby Matthiesen, a senior research fellow at the University of Oxford. "Now there are frequent skirmishes at checkpoints, or when security forces try to raid a village and arrest people suspected of having taken part in the uprising," he said, referring to local pushback against the Saudi government.
Mr. Adubisi said some Shia in Eastern Province began arming themselves with weapons such as guns after the Saudi government started killing protesters in the region in 2011 and 2012.
He said that while he thinks protesters should not take up arms, he does not believe these militants can be considered terrorists, adding that he agrees with the late Sheikh Nimr that words are stronger than bullets.
The 15 cases Mr. Adubisi cites do not include numerous incidents in which, he alleges, the armoured vehicles, stationed at checkpoints in al-Awamiya, drive through residential areas shooting at shop windows and cars in an apparently random fashion.
Although the $15-billion deal was signed by the former Harper government, the Trudeau Liberals have stood by the 14-year agreement. The approval given in April was for 70 per cent of the related exports. The Liberals have defended their actions by saying that cancelling the deal would not improve human rights in Saudi Arabia and would injure Canada's international reputation for respecting contracts.
Critics of the Saudi deal say it should not matter which country's armoured vehicles have been deployed against Shia Muslims in Eastern Province.
"Riyadh's proclivity to use force against civilians – armoured vehicles, to be precise – is now beyond dispute, if there was still any doubt," Cesar Jaramillo, executive director of Project Ploughshares, an anti-war group in Waterloo, Ont., that monitors the arms trade.
"It matters little whether the vehicles used in these particular instances were actually made in Canada, though they could have been. And the chances of such abuses will only increase as Canada proceeds to ship $15-billion worth of armoured vehicles."
Stephen Priestley, a researcher with the Canadian American Strategic Review, a think tank that tracks defence spending, said he believes the armoured vehicles featured in the videos supplied by Shia activists are Al-Mansour machines made by a company called Saudi Groups.
Mr. Jaramillo noted the threshold established by the human-rights safeguards of Canadian export controls is not evidence or certainty, but reasonable risk. "If Ottawa determines that Saudi Arabia's documented use of armoured vehicles against civilians does not constitute a reasonable risk of misuse of similar vehicles manufactured in Canada, it should at the very least drop the claim that Canada's export controls are among the strongest in the world."
Mr. Adubisi, a writer and activist, says he was held in jail without charge for more than 325 days in Saudi Arabia between 2011 and 2012 and tortured during five interrogation sessions before being released. He fled the country in 2013 and lives in Berlin with his wife and children.
He said the Saudi government has social license to go after Shia Muslim citizens in the name of fighting terrorism. Saudi Arabia's relations with Iran, where Shia Muslims predominate, are strained at best.
"Any attacks, any violence against the Shia minority, few people will care – because they are Shia."
The Sunni-dominated Saudi media is full of anti-Shia sentiment, and lumps together all Shia Muslims whether they are in Iran, Bahrain or elsewhere, Mr. Adubisi said. They say "those people are helping Iran, those people are part of Hezbollah, those people are helping [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad. They will put all the problems of the Middle East on the Shia in Saudi Arabia."
He said Canadians should try to imagine what it would be like if Canada's government were to blame Iranian-Canadians for problems with Iran.
"That is what is happening in Saudi Arabia," he said.