As quickly as the Sochi Olympic flame was snuffed, so was the brief respite on politically motivated repression and arrests in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. On Monday, mass arrests of Russian pro-democracy activists began in earnest after eight protesters were sentenced for protesting against the Putin regime in May, 2012. And news is emerging that Russia has put troops on alert in the western military district.
Among those arrested in Moscow were former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny, members of Pussy Riot – including Canadian landed immigrant Nadezhda Tolokonnikova – and others. The group was protesting outside of a courthouse and then shifted to a nearby square where the police moved in.
Radio France journalist Elena Servettaz witnessed police arresting bystanders whose only mistake was to stop and silently watch the small protest. Activists tweeted on Tuesday that Mr. Nemtsov had been sentenced to 10 days in prison and Mr. Navalny for seven.
What is alarming, is that these new cases were argued in front of the same judge who actively participated in the prolonged detention of Russian whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky, who died in custody in 2009 after being beaten in jail and denied medical treatment. He died in prison of pancreatitis in 2009.
In November, 2012, The United States adopted “Magnitksy” legislation that targets Russian officials who engage in and benefit from corruption and the abuse of human rights in Russia. It bans such individuals from traveling to the U.S. and freezes their U.S.-based assets. A European version of the law has been actively debated in the EU and in January, The Parliamentary Assembly for the Council of Europe recommended the adoption of Magnitsky legislation. In Canada, Liberal MP Irwin Cotler introduced a similar private members bill in 2011.
During the crisis in Kiev, the Canadian government displayed effective international leadership by placing targeted sanctions against members of the Viktor Yanukvovych regime. By joining the U.S., and other nations, Canada must now do the same for Russia to help alter that country’s repressive trajectory towards a similar inevitable and bloody outcome as the one in Ukraine, and to discourage the likely annexation of Eastern Ukraine by Mr. Putin.
Like the Yanukovych regime, Mr. Putin’s survival relies on a shady network of lawmakers, judges, police and other officials who actively engage in corruption and the abuse of human rights. And like the officials in Mr. Yanukovych’s regime, Mr. Putin’s officials keep their dirty assets outside of Russia: they have homes in the west and send their children to be educated in U.S., U.K. and Canadian universities. They steal from Russia and then arrest and beat those citizens who criticize them for doing so. Shockingly, they use countries like Canada to hide their assets and benefit from our stability.
Canada has acted before. In 2009, the federal government, after a 15-year legal battle, denied entry to Vitaly Malkin, alleging the Russian billionaire oligarch was involved in money laundering and had ties to organized crime.
Targeting Russian officials who have been identified as having participated in the abuse of human rights and engaging in corruption isn’t difficult – the United States have already adopted a clear approach to this, with Europe to follow soon.
By targeting Russian officials who have been clearly identified as having profited from the abuse of rights and engaging in corrpution, Canada will be helping to protect those Russians who advocate for the basic values that we Canadians share: rule of law, democracy and basic human rights. Russian officials who advocate for violent crackdowns against protestors – like the one that the Putin regime advocated for in Kiev – will be put on notice that they will be held accountable for their actions in the west.
Immigration Minister Chris Alexander said Monday that Magnitsky type sanctions might be considered for Russian officials if there is any indication that Russia promotes further violence in Ukraine.
Waiting for Russia to invade Ukraine and annex Crimea will not help those in the Crimea or the many Russians who will be imprisoned and tortured for their advocacy for rights in their country. As Russian activist Oleg Kashin explained, Russian officials “don’t care at all about Russians on either side of the Russian border – it’s more important for them to be able to travel ... and so that no one freezes their bank accounts.”
The Central and Eastern European Council in Canada, representing the interests of four million Canadians, has been joined by the Russian-Canadian media in calling for the Canadian government to adopt Magnitsky legislation.
We must act now and adopt targeted sanctions against Russia officials who have clearly participated in the abuse of human rights – and even torture and murder. Doing so will both protect Russian activists and could avoid a full blown international conflict in eastern Ukraine. The risk of offending corrupt officials is greatly outweighed by regional stability and the safety of Russian advocates of freedom and democracy.
Marcus Kolga is a Canadian documentary filmmaker, human rights and democracy advocate. He is the Canadian advisor to the Inter-Parliamentary Group on Russian Human Rights and Justice for Sergei Magnitsky.