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Justice in Russia gets a needed boost from Canada

Bill Browder is the author of Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man's Fight for Justice.

Torture. Poisoning. Falling from a tall building. These are just some of the ways that members of the Putin regime silence their dissenters. While Russian President Vladimir Putin's criminal mafia may enjoy impunity in Russia, the Canadian government has a chance to hold them to account in Canada.

The House of Commons committee on foreign affairs on Wednesday recommended that the government include Magnitsky sanctions in the Special Economic Measures Act. Recent events in Russia show that the government needs to act on this recommendation, as a matter of utmost urgency.

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Magnitsky sanctions were inspired by the story of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who was tortured and killed in a Moscow prison after uncovering a $230-million (U.S.) tax fraud, and testifying against the Russian government officials involved. Despite overwhelming evidence incriminating these officials, the Russian government exonerated everyone involved.

As Mr. Magnitsky's former client, I felt a moral and emotional obligation to ensure that the people who killed him faced justice. But the question we faced in the Magnitsky case was similar to that faced by victims of repressive regimes around the world. How do you get justice in a country where the rule of law is so flagrantly disregarded? The answer is short – you don't.

But as we looked at this case, we realized that the people who killed Mr. Magnitsky did so for money – $230-million, to be precise. These criminals don't keep their ill-gotten gains in Russia; they know all too well how easily it can be taken away from them. Instead, they keep their money in the West.

We realized that by preventing these people from storing and spending their money in the West, we could bring an end to the impunity they enjoyed in Russia. By freezing their assets and banning their visas, we could create direct, personal consequences for human-rights abusers, hitting them where it hurts the most – in their wallets. This was the genesis of Magnitsky sanctions – targeted visa bans and asset freezes imposed on individual human-rights abusers. The United States was first to adopt these sanctions with the 2012 Magnitsky Act, applying to Russian human-rights abusers, followed by the 2016 Global Magnitsky Act, which sanctions human-rights abusers from around the world. There are currently 44 people banned from the United States under the 2012 Act, 39 of whom were directly involved in the Magnitsky case. The European Parliament followed suit in 2014, and last year, Estonia passed the first Magnitsky-sanctions law in Europe. In Canada, MP Irwin Cotler introduced a Canadian version of the Magnitsky Act in 2011. With Wednesday's House recommendation, we are finally nearing the finish line. This recommendation comes not a moment too soon.

Two months ago, Vladimir Kara-Murza, a 35-year-old Russian opposition politician who campaigned for a Canadian Magnitsky law on multiple occasions, was poisoned within an inch of his life in Russia – for the second time in two years.

Mr. Kara-Murza was a close associate of Boris Nemtsov, another Russian opposition politician who campaigned in Ottawa for a Canadian Magnitsky law in February, 2012. In February, 2015, almost exactly three years later, Mr. Nemtsov was shot in cold blood on the doorsteps of the Kremlin.

Incredibly, Mr. Kara-Murza is not the first poisoning connected to the Magnitsky case. In 2012, Alexander Perepilichny suddenly dropped dead in Britain after providing key evidence in the case. An inquest into his death earlier this month revealed that he may have ingested poisoned soup – while his stomach contents were mysteriously flushed away after his death, traces of a rare toxin were found in his stomach cavity.

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On March 21, Russian lawyer Nikolai Gorokhov, lawyer for the Magnitsky family, fell four stories from his apartment in Moscow. The fall occurred the night before he was due to give new and extremely damning evidence in court concerning the government cover-up of the Magnitsky case. He was also a key witness for the U.S. Department of Justice investigation into money laundering connected to the case. The Russian state sources immediately dismissed any foul play. Mr. Gorokhov is currently recovering from this trauma.

The Magnitsky case is just one fraction of Mr. Putin's brutal kleptocracy, and the situation in Russia is reaching a breaking point.

Nearly 70 years ago, Canadian John Humphrey drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, earning Canada a reputation as a world leader in human-rights advocacy. It is time for the new government to live up to this reputation. If Canada wants to remain a global protector of human rights, the government should follow the recommendations of the foreign affairs committee and implement Magnitsky sanctions.

Video: What you need to know about the three main arms of Russia’s intelligence apparatus (The Globe and Mail)
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