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Canada urged to take a stand in U.S.-Russia spat over corruption, adoptions

Jennifer Damiano and Bert Lee, with their son, Ruslan Lee, who was adopted from Kazakhstan. The family is trying to adopt a child from Russia.

DENNIS DRENNER/The Globe and Mail

Ottawa is studying a list of 60 Russian officials who have allegedly gone unpunished over a major corruption and murder case in their home country, and now has to decide whether to ban them from Canada.

The situation places the Canadian government in the middle of a diplomatic spat between the United States and Russia that has grown to engulf the emotional issue of international adoptions. Last month, Washington moved to freeze the assets and deny visas to Russian officials who have been linked to the 2009 death of a tax-lawyer named Sergei Magnitsky. Moscow quickly retaliated, blocking all adoptions in the country involving American couples last week.

Human-rights advocates are now calling on the Harper government to follow in the footsteps of the Obama administration and bring about a form of justice for Mr. Magnitsky. He died in a Russian jail of alleged mistreatment and torture after testifying against officials in a massive tax fraud, in a case that has sparked concerns of a cover-up after no one was held to account for his death.

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Liberal MP Irwin Cotler said that Ottawa should either pass legislation that mirrors the American law, or use existing powers to go after the Russian officials by denying them entry into Canada.

"We share the hopes of the Russian people for a country that is governed by the rule of law, that combats the culture of repression, impunity and corruption that the Magnitsky case highlighted," Mr. Cotler said in an interview on Monday.

However, the swiftness of the Russian retaliation to the U.S. legislation has sparked concerns over the application of similar measures against adoptions by Canadians. Jennifer Damiano has already met the 19-month-old child that she and her husband, Bert Lee, are hoping to adopt from Russia. She is worried by the possibility that Canada will follow the U.S. lead and use existing legislation against Russian officials.

"I hope and pray they do not use existing laws to pass something that would negatively affect all prospective parents in the process of adopting from Russia," she said.

Ms. Damiano said her husband holds U.S. citizenship, which could complicate the planned adoption. Ms. Damiano said she hopes that Mr. Lee's pending Canadian citizenship will be expedited to allow the couple to adopt as Canadians.

"Once you go, and once you meet your child … it is very real. That child, to you, although it hasn't been finalized in court, in our minds and our hearts, that child is ours," she said. "It's too hard to imagine if things don't go through."

American businessman Bill Browder, who was Mr. Magnitsky's boss at the Hermitage Fund in Russia and has led the push to punish Russian officials, said it would be wrong to bow to the threat of retaliation.

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"You don't negotiate with terrorists," he said. "If there is no consequence to murder, they will carry on murdering more people."

Mr. Browder and Mr. Cotler met last month with Immigration Minister Jason Kenney in Ottawa, handing him a list of 60 officials that could be banned from Canada using existing provisions in the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. Mr. Browder said he is hoping for an answer on any measures relatively soon, although Canadian officials have refused to comment on their plans or the threat of Russian retaliation.

A spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird refused to lay out Ottawa's position on the matter, simply stating that "the promotion and protection of human rights features prominently in our ongoing dialogue with the Russian authorities."

Members of the adoption community in Canada said they have developed good relationships in Russia, and that they hope the adoption process for Canadians will not be affected by the Magnitsky case.

"At this point, we feel very positive about the situation," said Robin Pike, executive director at the Choices Adoption and Counselling Agency in Victoria. "We'll just have to wait and see."

Mr. Cotler said there is support in all parties for efforts to go after officials involved in Mr. Magnitsky's death. Mr. Cotler has been joined in an inter-parliamentary group on the matter by NDP MP Wayne Marston and Conservative MP David Sweet.

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Mr. Magnitsky was hired by Mr. Browder's Hermitage Fund in 2007. He quickly discovered that three of Hermitage's investment holding companies in Russia had been stolen by a new company owned by a convicted killer. Later, he found out that $230-million of taxes paid by Hermitage had been stolen by police and other officials.

In October, 2008, Mr. Magnitsky testified against Artem Kuznetsov and Pavel Karpov, two officials with the Russian Interior Ministry. A month later, Mr. Kuznetsov sent three of his subordinates to arrest Mr. Magnitsky, who was locked up in the notorious Butyrka prison.

The 37-year-old lawyer was refused treatment in prison for a pancreatic condition, subjected to repeated torture, and, according to his supporters, beaten to death by guards in the fall of 2009.

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About the Authors
Parliamentary reporter

Daniel Leblanc studied political science at the University of Ottawa and journalism at Carleton University. He became a full-time reporter in 1998, first at the Ottawa Citizen and then in the Ottawa bureau of The Globe and Mail. More

Parliamentary reporter

Kim Mackrael has been a reporter for The Globe and Mail since 2011. She joined the Ottawa bureau Sept. 2012. More


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