The federal government has opened the door to adopting parts of a U.S. law that angers the Kremlin, one that would freeze assets of corrupt Russian officials and ban their travel to Canada.
Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion had previously objected to Canada adopting legislation styled after the Magnitsky Act in the United States, insisting that the country already has laws to deal with corrupt officials. He was also concerned that such a law would damage Canada's effort to re-engage with Russia.
But heavy lobbying from within the Liberal caucus and from party stalwarts, such as former justice minister Irwin Cotler and former Liberal leader Bob Rae, persuaded the government to allow the House of Commons foreign affairs committee to re-examine the Magnitsky Act provisions, according to Liberal MP Borys Wrzesnewskyj.
"There are many people concerned with this file and it was something that was being actively discussed," Mr. Wrzesnewskyj said. "I certainly take this as a real opportunity that we have legislation that is passed."
Liberal MP Robert Nault, chair of the foreign affairs committee, told The Globe and Mail that MPs will hold hearings in September aimed at updating two Canadian sanctions laws and will probably incorporate key features of legislation that was put forward last year by Mr. Cotler, who did not seek re-election, and resubmitted in May as a private member's bill by Conservative MP James Bezan.
Mr. Bezan's bill – which is almost identical to Mr. Cotler's legislation – goes beyond the 2012 Magntisky Act and targets human-rights abusers worldwide with sanctions.
Mr. Nault said he thinks that the foreign affairs committee would favour legislation with broad powers to go after anyone accused of human-rights abuses with asset freezes and visa bans rather than the U.S. law that targets only Russians.
"This legislation is intended to manage the test of time of any foreign country that may end up in the kind of scenario we are talking about with Russia," he said. "We thought instead of getting into hearings on Magnitsky specifically that we would look at the broader issue and include Magnitsky and the issues surrounding what transpired there as part of the whole process."
Conservative Foreign Affairs critic Tony Clement said his party is suspicious that Mr. Nault's committee is being used by Mr. Dion to quash any effort to bring in Magnitsky-type sanctions.
"I'm adopting a wait-and-see attitude, to make sure this isn't some sort of subterfuge or some sort of evasive mechanism to not deal with the real issue, which is namely to get at the assets that will send the best signal to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and other regimes that their murdering of dissidents is not acceptable by Canadian politicians," Mr. Clement said.
The Liberals, Conservatives and New Democrats all promised in the 2015 general election to adopt Magnitsky-like legislation. The U.S. law is named after Russian whistle blower Sergei Magnitsky, who accused Russian law-enforcement and tax officials of a massive tax fraud scheme prior to his November, 2009, death in a Moscow jail. Family and friends say he was tortured, beaten and denied critical medical treatment shortly before he died.
The Commons foreign affairs committee is conducting required statutory reviews of the Freezing Assets of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act as well as the Special Economic Measures Act, which allows Canada to impose sanctions against foreign governments for grave breaches of international peace. This was the law that Canada used to impose economic sanctions against Russia for its annexation of Crimea.
The Russian embassy in Ottawa has warned that any move to adopt Magnitsky-like provisions would harm relations between both countries. When U.S. President Barack Obama signed the Magnitsky Act into law, the Kremlin retaliated by banning the adoption of Russian babies by American citizens.
In recent months, the Kremlin has also stepped up pressure against Anglo-American financier William Browder, who has led an international campaign to get other countries to adopt legislation based on the Magnitsky Act. He has been in Canada on several occasions since the Liberals came to power, lobbying the government and MPs to pass such a law.
Mr. Magnitsky worked for Mr. Browder, who was instrumental in getting the U.S. Congress to adopt the law.
Russian officials have repeatedly attacked Mr. Browder and have accused him of tax fraud, which he denies.