Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland says the Liberal government will support a Senate bill that would establish Magnitsky-style sanctions against human-rights abusers in Russia and around the world, following in the footsteps of the U.S. and Britain.
The announcement comes a month after the House of Commons foreign affairs committee urged the Liberal government to expand Canadian sanctions legislation to include human-rights abusers, freezing their assets and denying them visas. U.S.-born financier and anti-Putin campaigner Bill Browder has led the international effort to sanction human-rights abusers worldwide, in memory of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who was murdered in 2009. Mr. Browder has made many trips to Ottawa in recent years, pressing both the former Conservative and current Liberal government to implement a Magnitsky Act.
"In Canada and around the world, the issue of human-rights sanctions and in particular the case of Sergei Magnitsky have drawn strong interest, and rightly so," said Ms. Freeland in a speech to the House of Commons on Wednesday night. "However, there is no current Canadian law that authorizes the imposition of sanctions specifically for violations of international human rights obligations in a foreign state or for acts of corruption."
Ms. Freeland specifically expressed support for Bill S-226, tabled by Conservative Senator Raynell Andreychuk. The legislation, essentially modelled on the Magnitsky Act that passed in the U.S. Congress in 2012, passed the Senate in April.
The House is expected to start debating it Friday. Ms. Freeland said the government will work with parliamentarians to bring forward some "some technical amendments to strengthen the bill," but did not say what those amendments will look like.
A spokesperson from the Russian embassy in Ottawa denounced the government's announcement Wednesday night.
"We deplore this unfriendly move by the Canadian government which will surely damage our bilateral relations and will not be left unanswered. Equally unfortunate is yet another repetition of failed confrontational policies toward Russia."
Earlier this year, pro-Moscow websites led a smear campaign against Ms. Freeland highlighting that her maternal Ukrainian grandfather was a Nazi collaborator. Russia has also refused to lift a travel ban it imposed on Ms. Freeland in 2014.
Bill S-226 would sanction human-rights violators such as those linked to the murder of Mr. Magnitsky. Mr. Browder hired Mr. Magnitsky as the lawyer for his Moscow-based Hermitage Capital Management hedge fund in 2005. Mr. Magnitsky was arrested in 2008 and died in prison in 2009 after accusing Russian officials of theft. Investigations by Russia's human-rights council eventually concluded he was beaten to death by prison staff.
Mr. Browder has dedicated the past seven years to creating a legacy for Mr. Magntisky by urging governments to pass sanctions in his name. He said Ms. Freeland's announcement Wednesday is a "perfect outcome."
"This is an emotional day and gives some meaning to a terrible and tragic loss seven years ago, with the murder of Sergei Magnitsky," Mr. Browder told The Globe and Mail in an interview from London.
"It recognizes his sacrifice and it sends a very powerful message to bad guys everywhere that there's a consequence for torturing and killing people."
At one point last year, Mr. Browder was concerned the Liberal government was stalling its promise to pass a Canadian version of the Magnitsky Act – something all three major federal parties committed to during the 2015 federal election. When the Liberals came to office, then-foreign minister Stéphane Dion opposed the idea, arguing that Canada already has laws to deal with corrupt officials.
Mr. Browder raised the pressure on the government. He and former Liberal MP Irwin Cotler, who initially led the push in Parliament for a Canadian version of the Magnitsky Act, testified before parliamentary committees on the matter. The committees also heard from other Russian human-rights advocates, including outspoken Kremlin critic Vladimir Kara-Murza, who alleges he has been poisoned twice for his political activities, and Zhanna Nemtsova, the daughter of Boris Nemtsov, the democratic Russian opposition leader who was killed in 2015.
The testimony resulted in the foreign affairs committee's final report, which bore the name and photo of Mr. Magnitsky. It called on the government to amend the Special Economic Measures Act to expand the scope under which sanctions can be enacted, to include cases of "gross human rights violations."
The report landed on the desk of Ms. Freeland, who replaced Mr. Dion in January after a cabinet shuffle. Mr. Browder was hopeful that his long-time friend Ms. Freeland would take action. Ms. Freeland, an outspoken supporter of Ukraine, does not share the same views as her predecessor on Magnitsky-style sanctions.
Conservative foreign affairs critic Peter Kent welcomed Ms. Freeland's announcement Wednesday, saying it took far too long for the Liberal government to support Bill S-226. He said the bill will target human-rights abusers who do the dirty work - not just government officials.
"These [sanctions] are for the jailers, those who take directions from superiors to brutalize, to kill, to intimidate and to move ill-gotten gains around the world," Mr. Kent said.
NDP foreign affairs critic Hélène Laverdière also applauded the government's decision.
"Canada must be a leader when it comes to human rights. Several countries have adopted similar legislation and we are encouraged that the Liberals are finally taking this important step to support the global Magnitsky movement."
Mr. Browder said the Liberal government's commitment builds on Canada's global reputation as a defender of human rights.
"Canada has always been punching above its weight in the area of international human rights. And it sets a very strong tone for the rest of the world to follow."
As Mr. Browder awaits the implementation of a Canadian Magnitsky Act, he continues talks with the European Union, South Africa and other governments on adopting similar sanctions. Like the U.S. and Britain, Estonia has adopted sanctions and Lithuania is considering a draft Magnitsky Act.