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Liberal MP Irwin Cotler stands during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, December 14, 2011.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The Conservative government has signalled it will make Canada the second country to pass a so-called Magnitsky law to sanction Russian officials for domestic human rights violations.

Moscow will certainly take the move as a poke in the eye to President Vladimir Putin – he reacted angrily to a similar law in the United States – but with Canada already imposing sanctions over Russia's actions in Ukraine, that is no longer an obstacle.

Magnitsky laws are named after Russian lawyer and fraud investigator Sergei Magnitsky, who uncovered evidence of a major theft of tax money by government officials – but was then arrested for it himself, imprisoned, beaten, and left to languish for 358 days before he died in jail at age 37. Magnitsky laws impose sanctions outside of Russia against officials who were involved in the case, such as freezing their assets or barring them from bank transactions.

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A handful of politicians from various parties have lobbied for years for the Canadian government to pass such a law – but now, as Prime Minister Stephen Harper accuses Mr. Putin of aggression in Ukraine, the government has seized the idea.

On Wednesday, Liberal MP Irwin Cotler's motion calling for a Magnitsky law won unanimous backing in the House of Commons. The Conservatives indicated they intend to follow up with a bill that will cover not only the Magnitsky case, but allow sanctions against officials in any country who are complicit in human rights violations.

"It was the escalating oppression of Putin, both domestically in Russia, and external aggression with regard to the Crimea and Ukraine – all this has been a kind of wake-up call," Mr. Cotler said.

The Liberal MP, a prominent human-rights lawyer, has pushed the campaign since the day in London four years ago when he heard the story of Mr. Magnitsky from his former employer, investment banker Bill Browder. On Wednesday, Mr. Browder was in Ottawa to watch Canadian politicians pledge to pass a Magnitsky law.

Mr. Browder, the chairman of the Hermitage Capital Management, was once among Russia's biggest foreign investors, an activist shareholder who exposed the fraud and abuses of mega-rich oligarchs and profited from the revelations. But he was expelled from the country in 2006, labelled a national-security threat, and Russian officials raided his firm's offices in 2007.

Mr. Magnitsky, a lawyer and financial investigator, found evidence that Russian officials used documents from that raid to steal $230-million in taxes paid by Mr. Browder's Heritage Fund. But it was Mr. Magnitsky who was arrested and jailed – a Russian human rights council found he was beaten before he died nearly a year later behind bars, aged 37.

Mr. Browder made it his life's mission to get justice for Mr. Magnitsky, and now has written a bestselling book about the attempts to expose Kremlin corruption, Red Notice.

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The case, Mr. Browder argues, was the "canary in the coal mine" that showed Mr. Putin's corruption – because he arranged for the whistleblower to be jailed "What the Magnitsky case has proven is that Putin is not a nationalist," Mr. Browder said in an interview in Ottawa. "He's a kleptocrat."

It was hard to get people around the world to see the significance of the case until Mr. Putin annexed Crimea, then Russian-backed Ukrainian separatists shot down Malaysian Airlines flight MH-17, and more recently, in February, Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov was shot and killed.

"There's murders, there's cover-ups, there's international lying," he said. "It's become sort of everybody's problem."

But Mr. Browder says sanctions can be effective – both in the case of Ukraine, and domestic rights abuses like Mr. Magnitsky's case.

Mr. Browder says Mr. Putin has essentially stashed stolen assets in the hands of Russia's mega-rich oligarchs, acting as his trustees, so sanctions that cut them off from using major banks and seize their assets in the West would add more pain to the broad sanctions already hurting Russia's economy.

And Magnitsky laws, which target officials who violate individuals' rights at the bidding of the regime, would create consequences for being complicit in abuses, he argued.

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When Canada becomes the first country after the United States to pass a Magnitsky law, it will add to the chill on Russian officials and put pressure on European nations to follow suit. And if that happens, Mr. Browder said, corrupt Russians will start to feel there's nowhere they, or their assets, can go.

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