OTTAWA – Canada’s long-awaited Magnitsky bill passed unanimously in the House of Commons on October 4 and is expected to receive the same endorsement in the Senate and become law six years after the idea behind it was first introduced in the House by a former Liberal Canadian justice minister and long-time human rights lawyer.
In October 2011, Irwin Cotler, then the Liberal critic for rights and freedoms and international justice in the House of Commons, introduced a private member’s bill that would have declared inadmissible to Canada anyone who was responsible for both the torture and death of Moscow tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in 2009 and the conspiracy to defraud the Russian government of taxes paid by the foreign-investment company, Hermitage Capital Management, which Mr. Magnitsky discovered.
The bill went nowhere, so in 2015, Mr. Cotler, who once represented Soviet dissidents Andrei Sakharov and Natan Sharansky, tried again, via a motion, to get Canada to impose sanctions against not only those involved in the Magnitsky case, but against any human-rights violators in countries either “unable” or “unwilling” to conduct their own investigations into such violations. Members of Parliament and senators adopted the non-binding motion, which Mr. Cotler followed up with another private member’s bill that again died when Parliament rose for the summer and a fall election resulted in Justin Trudeau’s Liberals wresting power from Stephen Harper’s Conservative government.
All three of Canada’s major political parties indicated their support for the legislation, however.
Mr. Cotler, a Jew who is of Ukrainian and Russian heritage, did not run for re-election. But his Magnitsky bill found life in the Canadian Senate, where last year Conservative Raynell Andreychuk, a Ukrainian Canadian, introduced the Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act (Sergei Magnitsky Law) that would freeze the assets of and impose travel bans on foreign nationals responsible for gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.
Sen. Andreychuk’s Bill S-226 passed the Senate in April, and was sent to the House under the sponsorship of Conservative MP James Bezan, who is also of Ukrainian descent. In June, the House Foreign Affairs Committee tweaked the bill, which was supported by the Trudeau government, to strengthen sections related to criminal offenses for sanctions violations and due process for persons subject to sanctions measures.
Now passed by the Commons, S-226 returns to the Senate for its final blessing before the bill becomes law.
The Kremlin’s reaction to the pending Canadian legislation was fast and furious.
At an October 4 briefing for reporters in Moscow, Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova warned that “nothing good will come” from Canada’s Magnitsky bill – which she said is “simply copied from the odious American Magnitsky Act”– and which would not “go unanswered” and likely result in the expansion of the list of Canadian officials banned from entering Russia.
Mr. Cotler, Sen. Andreychuk, Mr. Bezan and two other Ukrainian Canadians – Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC) President Paul Grod – are already on that list created in retaliation for Canadian sanctions imposed on Russia following its annexation of Crimea in 2014.
“Guised as a pro-human rights and anti-corruption measure, [Bill S-226] is a deplorably confrontational act blatantly interfering into Russia’s domestic affairs,” Russia’s Embassy in Ottawa said in a statement. “This hostile move, as well as any new anti-Russian sanctions, will be met with resolve and reciprocal countermeasures.”
But Mr. Cotler said that Canada’s proposed Magnitsky law does not target Russia or its government, but is designed to clamp down on all human-rights violators regardless of where those violations occur.
“When the Russians start to retaliate, they’re incriminating themselves,” he said in a telephone interview en route to Europe.
“[Russian President Vladimir] Putin has always seen this legislation as a threat to Putinism because it targets those who become enriched by his culture of corruption and criminality, and who will be unable to travel to Canada, launder their proceeds here or send their children to school here,” explained Mr. Cotler, who alleges to have personally felt Moscow’s wrath. (He believes that he was poisoned during a 2006 visit to Moscow, and when he informed Russian Embassy officials in Ottawa about it four years later was told that, “it won’t happen again.”)
If S-226 serves as an effective deterrent, “Putin will have less enablers and enforcers, and that weakens his position,” said Mr. Cotler, a Liberal MP for the Montreal riding of Mount Royal from 1999 to 2015.
He added that former Russian opposition leader and fierce Putin critic Boris Nemtsov, who was assassinated near the Kremlin in 2015, came to Ottawa to publicly back his 2011 private member’s bill as “pro-Russian legislation that would attempt to combat the culture of impunity in Russia.”
Once S-226 is enacted into law, the UCC wants the Canadian government to impose sanctions on Russian officials responsible for the “illegal imprisonment and maltreatment” of over 40 Ukrainians in Russia, and to establish “sanctions units” in a federal government department to ensure that sanctions are “effectively and comprehensively” enforced, the congress said in a statement.
“Everybody knows the real intention of the bill was to target Russian human-rights violators,” Mr. Grod told The Ukrainian Weekly. “Canada understands that the only way to engage Russia is through a deterrent strategy with consequences.”
In June, a group called the Russian Congress of Canada sent a letter, signed by its president, Igor Babalich, to Canadian MPs that decried S-226 and characterized it as “the ill-informed efforts of individuals with personal animosities against Russia that drag Canada into a campaign of wholesale demonization of one of Canada’s partners and neighbors in the Arctic.”
Mr. Grod questioned the intent of the Russian Congress, which appears to focus on “undermining” the Canada-Ukraine relationship through posting articles on its website that attack key players, such as Minister Freeland (http://russiancongresscanada.org/category/can-rus-rltns/freeland/).
He added that the congress had no membership and “was at best a paper organization” before the 2014 Revolution of Human Dignity.
“It only became active afterward because a counter-group was needed to the work of the Ukrainian community in Canada,” said Mr. Grod, a former corporate finance lawyer. “The Russian community does not speak through one unified voice in Canada.”
The Russian Embassy in Ottawa denied the Russian Congress has any ties to the Kremlin. “It’s a separate Canadian entity run by Canadians,” Embassy press secretary Kirill Kalinin said in an e-mail.