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World Saudi razing of Shia quarter condemned by UN human rights monitors

The Saudi government has said it wants to remove and redevelop the ancient neighbourhood of Al-Masora for health and safety reasons. Shia activists, however, say the Saudis want to eliminate a hideout for militants trying to avoid police.

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United Nations human rights monitors including a Canadian expert are condemning Saudi Arabia's use of force to clear and raze a minority Shia Muslim neighbourhood in the country's Eastern Province – measures that have fuelled more bloody conflict there.

Al-Masora, a 400-year-old walled quarter in Awamia, a village in the Al-Qatif Region bordering the Persian Gulf, has been a flashpoint in the conflict between Saudi Arabia's ruling Sunni Muslim majority and its tiny, disenfranchised Shia minority.

The Saudi government has said it wants to remove and redevelop the ancient neighbourhood of Al-Masora for health and safety reasons. Shia activists, however, say the Saudis want to eliminate a hideout for militants trying to avoid police. The quarter's narrow streets, for example, thwart the passage of combat vehicles that authorities use to control Awamia.

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"Despite our attempts to raise concerns and seek explanation … about the planned destruction, bulldozers and demolition vehicles, assisted by armed military forces … reportedly started May 10 to destroy buildings and homes in the walled historic neighbourhood and in other areas of Awamia, causing injury, death and material losses to the civilian residents," three UN experts said in a statement.

The group includes Leilani Farha, a Canadian who serves as the United Nations' special rapporteur on adequate housing, Karima Bennoune, an American serving as the U.N.'s point person on cultural rights and Australia's Philip Alston, the rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.

In recent weeks, images of violence from Al-Masora have flooded social media showing burned-out, destroyed buildings, some riddled with bullet holes and clips of armoured vehicles firing into residential quarters. The Saudi government, meanwhile, blamed Shia militants for killing a policemen, and other civilians, earlier this month, and accused "terrorist elements" of using explosive devices and land mines to obstruct the redevelopment.

Canada's Ms. Farha said in an interview that the Saudis have never properly explained this eviction. "There is a real lack of justification here. They have some development plan in the area, that has yet to be fully revealed, at least not to us." The UN group said the Saudis have so far declined to respond to official communications sent to Riyadh in April.

Al-Qatif has been described by experts as an area under lockdown. It's a hotbed of opposition to the reigning House of Saud and the Saudis frequently cite terror threats when they go after the area's militants.

Al-Qatif featured prominently in a 2016 national debate over Canada's sale of $15-billion in combat vehicles to Saudi Arabia. The Globe and Mail published footage showing Riyadh's forces using armoured vehicles against civilians. Those vehicles were not Canadian-made, but they demonstrated the Saudis' proclivity to use such weapons against their people.

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Ms. Farha said what's taken place in recent weeks is a "forced eviction under international human rights law," estimating that thousands of people will be affected by the demolition of Al-Masora.

The UN group has been monitoring the situation since January when, they say, Saudi authorities began to use measures such as shutting off electricity to drive residents from Al-Masora.

The Saudi embassy in Canada did not respond to a request to explain what is happening in Al-Masora.

The Canadian government, however, said it's carefully watching.

"We are aware of the UN panel of experts' conclusions and the Canadian embassy is closely following the developments in Al-Awamiyah," John Babcock, a spokesman for the department of Global Affairs said, using a different spelling for Awamia.

He said Canada "consistently raises concerns regarding human rights in the kingdom with senior Saudi officials."

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Saudi Arabia is an extremely closed society with tremendous restrictions on journalists and it's very difficult for foreign media to independently verify the claims and counterclaims of Shia activists and the Saudi government. U.S. rights and democracy watchdog Freedom House last year called Saudi Arabia "one of the worst human rights abusers in the world."

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