US-based Human Rights Watch has urged Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel to consider the political signals her government is sending to Saudi Arabia before approving a deal to sell 200 German-made tanks to the kingdom.
The German government should, at a minimum, obtain verifiable guarantees from the Saudi government that military equipment Germany exports will not be used in violation of international human rights and humanitarian law prior to exporting the tanks, the group said in a statement.
Merkel should make a clear and unequivocal public statement expressing concern about Saudi Arabia's human rights record and its role in neighboring Bahrain, Human Rights Watch added.
The German government has faced sharp criticism from opposition lawmakers and even within its own ranks after media reports - confirmed to Reuters by Saudi security sources - said Berlin had agreed to sell 200 Leopard 2 tanks to Saudi Arabia.
Opponents say the deal contravenes the country's export guidelines for military hardware and the tanks could be used to suppress human rights and bolster the ruling royal family in the world's largest oil exporter.
"The sight of Saudi tanks rolling into Bahrain signaled the start of Bahrain's crackdown on peaceful pro-democracy protesters there," said Christoph Wilcke, senior Saudi Arabia researcher at Human Rights Watch.
"Saudi reformers may well interpret selling tanks to Saudi Arabia at this time as German support for repressive regimes."
HRW said Saudi Arabia had a "dismal human rights record", adding that it was one of very few countries in the region whose government has offered no human rights reforms in the wake of popular uprisings in neighbouring countries since the beginning of the year.
"Saudi Arabia has time and again thwarted attempts by local reform activists to achieve greater rights protection and democracy," Wilcke said.
"Selling tanks while ignoring rights abuses sends the wrong signal at a time when European leaders have pledged to take a new and supportive approach to democracy activists in the Middle East."
The 2A7+ Leopard tanks said to comprise the Saudi orders are made by Krauss-Maffei Wegmann and Rheinmetall and viewed as among the most effective battle tanks in the world.
In spite of self-imposed restrictions, Germany's arms exports have doubled in the last decade and the country is now the world's third-largest weapons exporter behind the United States and Russia.
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