American-born financier and anti-Putin campaigner Bill Browder is concerned the federal government is stalling its commitment to pass a law sanctioning Russian human-rights abusers because of a Liberal commitment to re-engage with Russia.
Speaking to The Globe and Mail during a visit to Ottawa last week, Mr. Browder said he fears the government won't follow through on its promise to pass a Canadian version of the U.S. Magnitsky Act, which would freeze assets and ban visas for Russian human-rights violators.
"There's a camp within the government that wants to, they use the word 're-engage.' When taken very literally by most people, that means appease Russia. I fear that the appeasement camp may stall our initiative."
Mr. Browder's comments come after recent meetings with parliamentarians, government officials and the Prime Minister's Office. He said that while there appears to be all-party consent for the proposed law – Parliament unanimously adopted a motion tabled by then-Liberal MP Irwin Cotler last year calling for U.S.-style sanctions – he is not sensing the same level of urgency in backroom conversations with the government.
During last year's election campaign, he said all three major federal parties committed to pass a Canadian version of the Magnitsky Act.
The legislation would impose sanctions on Russian human-rights violators, including those linked to the murder of Sergei Magnitsky, the lawyer for Mr. Browder's Moscow-based Hermitage Capital Management hedge fund. After corrupt Russian officials stole from the hedge fund in 2005, Mr. Browder hired Mr. Magnitsky to investigate. Mr. Magnitsky was arrested in 2008 and died in prison in 2009 after accusing Russian officials of theft. Investigations eventually concluded he was beaten by prison staff.
Mr. Browder has been leading an international campaign against Russian President Vladimir Putin's regime ever since. He persuaded the U.S. Congress to sanction certain Russian officials under the Magnitsky Act in 2012 and is now trying to get Canada to do the same.
In a statement to The Globe, Chantal Gagnon, Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion's press secretary, said Canada has expressed "deep concern" about the Magnitsky case.
"We have reviewed the U.S Magnitsky Act, and the criteria used to develop rationale for designations under that act, and are carefully considering options," said Ms. Gagnon.
The minister's office also rejected concerns that re-engagement with the Russian government hinders Canada's ability to express its opposition to the country's appalling human-rights record.
"Engaging in dialogue with Russia is not the same as agreeing with Russia. Engagement allows Canada to speak clearly, bluntly and directly to Russia about its unacceptable behaviour and deplorable state of human rights," said Ms. Gagnon.
Canada-Russia relations became hostile under the former Conservative government, which publicly slammed the Putin regime for its invasion of Crimea in 2014. Mr. Dion has indicated an interest in re-engaging with Russia in an effort to encourage more productive diplomatic relations.
Mr. Cotler has long called for a Magnitsky Act in Canada. In 2012, the late Boris Nemtsov, then leader of the democratic Russian opposition, and his colleague Vladimir Kara-Murza, joined Mr. Cotler in Ottawa to call for the sanctions. Mr. Nemtsov was murdered in February of 2015 and, months after, Mr. Kara-Murza alleged he was poisoned for his political activities. Mr. Cotler said further political violence could have been prevented if the sanctions had been imposed in 2012.
"I believe we would have saved lives and I think we would have sent an international signal with Canada in the lead that there is a price to pay for engaging in torture and murder and repression," Mr. Cotler told The Globe.
Mr. Nemtsov's daughter, Zhanna Nemtsova, told a Senate committee last week that the repression will only continue if the international community doesn't act.
"I firmly believe that more international mechanisms that can be used to bring justice and accountability of the Russian authorities is needed in the world. Otherwise, this gross violation of human rights in Russia will persist," said Ms. Nemtsova, who fled to Germany from Russia after her father's death.
Ms. Nemtsova, Mr. Browder and Mr. Kara-Murza, who now uses a cane because of nerve damage caused by the poisoning, testified to the Senate and House of Commons foreign-affairs committees last week, calling for a Canadian version of the Magnitsky Act. Asked by a senator whether Canadian sanctions could really make a difference, Mr. Browder said Canada isn't a "small fish" on the international stage.
"Canada really does have this very sort of powerful, symbolic role which could, in my opinion, create the necessary momentum to make this thing happen around the world."
In a statement to The Globe, the Russian embassy said it is "disgusting" for Mr. Browder, "wanted for widespread tax evasion and fraud," to "capitalize" on Mr. Magnitsky's death.
"As for those who claim to be in opposition, it's more logical and responsible to campaign domestically than seek out foreign sponsorship and benefits abroad," said embassy press secretary Kirill Kalinin.