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Ottawa urged to pass law penalizing Russian human-rights abusers

Financier Bill Browder, seen in his London office, will arrive in Ottawa Monday.

Luke Tchalenko/The Globe and Mail

Anglo-American financier and anti-Putin campaigner Bill Browder arrives in Canada Monday seeking all-party support to adopt a Canadian version of the U.S. Magnitsky Act, which freezes assets and bans visas of Russian human-rights violators.

Mr. Browder, who campaigned to get the U.S. Congress to pass the law in 2013, is meeting cabinet ministers, officials from the Prime Minister's Office, and members of Parliament from all parties, officials from the Prime Minister's Office and will appear before the Commons Foreign Affairs committee.

"I am coming back to Canada to basically uphold the Liberals to their promise and to make this law," he said in a telephone interview from London, where he has been living since he was deported from Russia in 2005. "It should apply to all the perpetrators of human-rights abuses in Russia. Not just the people who tortured and killed Sergei Magnitsky."

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Parliament unanimously adopted a motion put forward by then Liberal MP Irwin Cotler last year, calling for U.S.-style sanctions against individual human-rights violators in Russia, including those involved in the 2009 detention, torture and murder of Russian whistle-blower Sergei Magnitsky.

Mr. Magnitsky was a lawyer for Mr. Browder's Moscow-based Hermitage Capital Management hedge fund, which corrupt Russian officials expropriated in 2005. He was arrested in 2007 and died in prison after he accused Russian officials of theft. Subsequent investigations found Mr. Magnitsky had been neglected and beaten by prison staff.

Since Mr. Magnitsky's death, Mr. Browder has led an international campaign against the Putin regime, triggering sanctions against certain Russian officials by the U.S. Congress and condemnation in the European Union and Canadian parliaments.

Mr. Browder wants the Liberal government to take up the cause by tabling legislation modelled on the U.S. Magnitsky Act.

"It puts the names of those human-rights violators on a public registry, which is published by the government," Mr. Browder said. "Those people on that registry are denied entry into Canada, and those people would have any of their assets frozen if they have any assets in Canada and wouldn't be allowed to use the Canadian banking system."

Mr. Cotler, a former justice minister and international human-rights advocate, is hopeful the government will table the legislation. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was supportive of the law in opposition, and Mr. Cotler has made the case directly to Foreign Affiars Minister Stéphane Dion.

"I have had two meetings with Dion on this and other ministers. We are on record as supporting it as Parliament and us as a party," Mr. Cotler said in an interview. "If Putin will not bring these perpetrators to justice, we should at least make sure that in the U.S. and in Canada and Europe that they will not be able to travel freely and launder their assets."

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The Conservatives and New Democrats say their parties would support such legislation.

"The law speaks for itself and I think the law would align us quite properly with the United States," Conservative deputy foreign affairs critic Peter Kent said.

The Russian embassy denied Mr. Browder's allegations of Russian corruption, and claimed he concocted an elaborate conspiracy to hide his criminal activities in Moscow.

"It will be strange and counterproductive to allow a personal vendetta by William Browder, wanted for widespread tax evasion and fraud, to have a negative impact on Russia-Canada relations," the embassy said in statement to The Globe and Mail. "This person has deliberately politicized things to whitewash himself instead of standing trial."

A move to adopt the Magnitsky Act in Canada could incite Russian retaliation. When the U.S. passed the law, Russia banned Americans from adopting children and drew up a blacklist of its own against U.S. officials.

The Canadian Chamber of Commerce said it is not in favour of imposing new sanctions against Russia unless Canada has the support of all its Western allies.

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"We've stressed to the government that we feel we should work in concert with our allies in dealings with countries like Iran and Russia, which is why we urged the lifting of sanctions on Iran," said chamber president Perrin Beatty.

"At this point, I don't think there is much inclination for us to announce anything unilateral with regard to Russia."

There has been an alarming rise in political violence in Russia in the past decade, which human-rights activists have associated with the dark history of Soviet show trials, executions and imprisonment in gulag prisons.

Boris Nemtsov, leader of the democratic Russian opposition, was murdered in 2015; his deputy, Vladimir Kara-Murza, alleged he was poisoned and nearly died over his political activities. Both men visited Canada in 2012 and urged Parliament to pass the Magnitsky law.

Mr. Browder, once one of the largest foreign investors in Russia, has been tried and convicted in absentia on tax evasion by a Russian court in 2013, even though Interpol has dismissed the case as politically motivated.

In January, Russia's state prosecutor, Yury Chaika, published an open letter accusing Mr. Browder of murder, fraud, embezzlement and spying for the U.S.

"Yes, my life is in danger, there is no question about it," Mr. Browder said. "I take many precautions."

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About the Author
Ottawa Bureau Chief

Robert Fife is The Globe and Mail's Ottawa Bureau Chief and the host of CTV's "Question Period with The Globe and Mail's Robert Fife." He uncovered the Senate expense scandal, setting the course for an RCMP investigation, audits and reform of Senate expense rules. In 2012, he exposed the E. More

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