Ever since he last heard from his younger brother in a Saudi jail three years ago, Ali Al Aradi has clung to hope that the two might one day be reunited.
That dream came to an abrupt end just over a week ago, when Saudi Arabia announced the deaths of 37 men, most belonging to the country’s Shia minority. Al Aradi’s 24-year-old brother Ahmed Hussein Al Aradi was one of them. Abdullah Salman Al Asreeh, also 24, was another.
There was no phone call, no warning, Al Aradi said.
“I saw it on the news,” Al Aradi, 26, said when he and Al Asreeh’s cousin spoke to CBC News in an exclusive interview in Toronto.
In the wake of one of Saudi Arabia’s largest mass executions in decades, the families of the two men are calling on Canada to stop the sale of arms to the regime, saying continuing to do so makes Canada complicit in the kingdom’s human rights abuses.
Under a secretive $15-billion deal first signed by the Harper government in 2014, Canada was to sell 928 armoured vehicles, including those outfitted with heavy assault cannons, to the regime. Two years later, that number was scaled back to 742 vehicles. Deliveries continue amid concerns Saudi-backed forces could use the vehicles against civilians in its effort to quell the largely Shia Houthi rebel movement in neighbouring Yemen.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has repeatedly stood behind the deal.
“How many times have we talked about Canada stopping arming or selling vehicles to Saudi Arabia?” Al Asreeh’s cousin Mohammed Al Ahmed, 31, said. “We are dealing with a regime country — they don’t have any red line.”
‘We’re going to take your brothers, your mother’
Wednesday’s deaths followed an earlier mass execution, in 2016, of 47 people, including the prominent Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, part of a growing clampdown on dissent under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who ascended to the throne in 2015.
But while bin Salman at first appeared to be ushering the kingdom into a period of reform — moving to finally allow women to drive, for example — Saudi Arabia has also drawn widespread criticism for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at its consulate in Turkey last year and recently rounding up women’s rights activists.
One of the last times Al Aradi spoke with his brother, Ahmed Hussein said he had a feeling he wouldn’t get out alive.
Ahmed Hussein was a student when he was jailed at 19 for participating in demonstrations to bring attention to the regime’s treatment of its Shia community as second-class citizens, Al Aradi said.
The Saudi government accused him of having attacked police and German diplomatic vehicles, according to Al Aradi.
He says there was never any evidence. “If you get caught by the government, they already have charges, you just have to sign them.”
Al Aradi says his brother was tortured. “They used electrical torture and they broke his hand, teeth.… They would tell him we’re going to take your brothers, your mother.”
What makes his death even more difficult to accept, Al Aradi said, was that his family had been told by Saudi officials that his brother would soon be released.
“We’re shocked,” he said.
‘The government didn’t give him a chance’
Of the 37 men executed Wednesday, 14 had been arrested in connection with protests in the predominantly Shia city of Al Awamiyah in 2011 and 2012.
Al Asreeh was among them.
Al Asreeh, 20 at the time of his arrest, spent much of his time working on his father’s farm, his cousin Al Ahmed said. He also cared deeply about shining a light on the living conditions of minorities, though Al Ahmed insists he only ever engaged in peaceful protest.
“If you’re going to talk about human rights or anything, they’re going to kill you. You are a terrorist … everyone’s going to think it’s good, the government killed someone who’s a terrorist. But he’s not,” Al Ahmed said, adding his cousin didn’t have access to a lawyer when he was arrested.
“He was a normal person,” Al Ahmed said. “He wanted to build his life, but the government didn’t give him a chance.”
In a statement announcing the executions, Saudi Arabia’s state press agency said the deaths relate to “the formation of terrorist cells to disrupt security … to attack the security headquarters using explosive bombs and to kill a number of security personnel.”
The Saudi government’s press office did not return a request for comment.
Amnesty International has condemned the executions, decrying a lack of due process, saying the majority of those executed were convicted after “sham” trials that relied on confessions “extracted through torture.” At least one of those put to death was a minor when he was arrested and convicted, it said, adding the use of the death penalty against those under 18 is a violation of international law.
‘Cancel that deal’
Asked about the executions after question period Tuesday, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said Canada is opposed to the death penalty wherever it is used and joins with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in its concerns.
“It is a cruel and inhumane punishment. We are particularly concerned given that some of those executed were minors when they were arrested,” Freeland said.
We demand and expect that Canadian arms exports are used in a way that fully respects Canadian values.– Global Affairs Canada
On the question of whether it would revisit the sale of armoured vehicles to the kingdom, however, Global Affairs Canada was less definitive. “As the prime minister has said, we are actively reviewing existing export permits to Saudi Arabia. No decision has been made. We are not issuing new permits to Saudi Arabia while this review is ongoing,” GAC said in a statement.
“We demand and expect that Canadian arms exports are used in a way that fully respects Canadian values and our foreign policy objectives.”
But Amnesty International’s secretary general Alex Neve says it’s “disgraceful” the deal is still on the table at all.
“That, I think, is the most obvious next step that Canada needs to take to demonstrate how deeply concerned we are about the state of human rights…. Cancel that deal.”
That could prove difficult for Canada, not only because of the implications to the relationship between the two countries, but also because of the possible fallout in an election year, says University of Waterloo political science professor Bessma Momani.
“I think the Canadian government recognizes that there are a lot of costs to be borne, particularly by a number of industries in the military sector. That is just not worth losing jobs over,” she said.
‘Naming and shaming’ not working
Last August, when Canada expressed its “grave concern” about the arrest of human rights advocates in a tweet, that prompted the Saudi government to expel Canada’s ambassador, threaten trade deals and suspend all Saudi Arabian Airlines flights to and from Toronto.
“I think the Canadians, frankly, don’t see much prospect of changing the regime’s behaviour or really taking on a big hit both politically and diplomatically from being the sole voice of criticizing the Saudis,” Momani said.
Still, while a “naming and shaming” approach may not have proven effective, Momani says Saudi Arabia’s behaviour is something Canada should remain concerned about, with the charge of terrorism being used as a “catch-all” term to quash any dissent — something that often extends to family members through “collective punishment.”
That, in part, is why Al Aradi and Al Ahmed have claimed asylum in Canada.
For now, though, both men are trying to come to terms with a loss that’s left them stunned, their friends and relatives carrying out a prayer ceremony in Toronto last Friday for those killed.
They’d hoped to hold funerals, but the Saudi government still hasn’t released the bodies, Al Ahmed said.
“When we get his body, we will find out what they did with him.”