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A demonstrator is detained at a rally during a strike called to protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela, July 27, 2017.

Marco Bello/REUTERS

The federal Liberal government says it lacks the legal authority to follow in the footsteps of the United States and swiftly sanction top Venezuelan government officials specifically for human-rights abuses.

Speaking on background, a government official told The Globe and Mail that Canada could more easily sanction Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and his officials if Bill S-226, which proposes to give the government the power to sanction human-rights abusers around the world, was law. Parliamentarians had an opportunity to pass the bill – known as the Canadian version of the Magnitsky Act – in June, but failed to do so before MPs and senators went on summer break.

The legislation is named after Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who was hired by U.S.-born financier and anti-Putin campaigner Bill Browder to represent 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.

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Read more: Vote tampering claims jolt Venezuela on eve of new assembly

Mr. Browder, who has led an international effort to sanction human-rights abusers worldwide in memory of Mr. Magnitsky, said the Venezuelan crisis demonstrates the need for parliamentarians to pass the Magnitsky bill as soon as they return to Ottawa in the fall.

"It raises the temperature to make this the first bit of parliamentary business to get done as soon as everybody gets back, so Maduro and his cronies can be added immediately to the Magnitsky Act," Mr. Browder said.

Former Liberal MP Irwin Cotler initially led the push in Parliament for a Canadian version of the Magnitsky Act. Since leaving politics in 2015, Mr. Cotler has returned to his work as an international human-rights lawyer and represents jailed Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who was arrested by Venezuelan security agents in the middle of the night Tuesday. Mr. Cotler said the Magnitsky bill is meant to target human-rights violators such as those in the Maduro regime.

"The Magnitsky legislation is now as timely as it is necessary."

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland announced the government's support for Bill S-226 in a speech to Parliament earlier this year. Despite a last-minute effort by the House of Commons foreign-affairs committee to pass the legislation in June, the bill will have to wait until Parliament resumes in September to become law.

More than 100 people have died since April in street protests across Venezuela, which began after Mr. Maduro attempted to strip the opposition-dominated Congress of its powers. The Maduro government characterizes the country's crisis as the result of an economic war led by the international right wing and as a fiction created by opposition-influenced media. Meanwhile, the country is facing triple-digit inflation and desperately short of food and medicine.

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In an attempt to discourage last Sunday's election of a new constituent assembly, which experts say essentially turned Mr. Maduro's rule into a dictatorship, the Trump administration sanctioned 13 top Venezuelan government officials last week. The United State added Mr. Maduro to that list on Monday after he went ahead with the election.

The Liberal government is under pressure from the opposition and Canadian-Venezuelan activists to follow suit. Ms. Freeland has issued several strongly worded statements condemning Mr. Maduro's "dictatorial intentions" but no Canadian sanctions have been announced.

While Magnitsky-style sanctions are not an option until the bill becomes law, the government official said Canada can still target Venezuelan officials through the Special Economic Measures Act. The source said SEMA sanctions are being carefully considered but cited concerns that such "blunt" measures could cause further economic damage to an already suffering population.

Conservative foreign affairs critic Peter Kent rejects that argument.

"For people who are reluctant to impose sanctions because it may hurt the unintended – the innocent civilians who are the victims of this humanitarian and political tragedy – that's simply not the case. Things could not get much worse in Venezuela today in humanitarian terms or in terms of undemocratic processes," Mr. Kent said.

According to SEMA, cabinet – through the governor in council – can take economic measures against a state if it believes that "a grave breach of international peace and security has occurred that has resulted or is likely to result in a serious international crisis." Trade lawyer Cyndee Todgham Cherniak, who advises businesses on how to navigate Canada's sanctions regime, wonders why Canada has used SEMA to sanction countries such as Burma, but not Venezuela.

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"We impose sanctions against Burma for their human-rights violations and the instability in that country," she said. "It's consistent with Canadian values to impose sanctions against Venezuela. We can't accept this sort of behaviour."

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