Bill Browder is chief executive officer and co-founder of London-based Hermitage Capital Management, and an anti-Putin campaigner.
Six and a half years ago, my Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky was writhing in agony in a maximum-security prison in Moscow, a culmination of months of torture combined with repeatedly being denied medical attention for pancreatitis and gallstones. He had been detained in custody a year earlier, in retaliation for blowing the whistle on a $230-million (U.S.) Russian government corruption scheme. He was arrested and detained by the same government officials he had exposed.
His tormentors believed they could wear him down, force him to retract his testimony and sign a false confession, but after a year of torture and subjection to the most deplorable detention conditions imaginable, Sergei had yet to succumb to their pressure. So, on that terrible night when he needed emergency hospitalization, instead of saving his life, his jailors sent eight riot guards armed with rubber batons into his cell. They struck him so many times that he died shortly after. He was 37 and left a wife and two children.
The fate of Sergei Magnitsky might have ended like thousands of others, whose stories of injustice and torture in Russian police custody go unnoticed. Sergei, however, was no ordinary detainee. He meticulously documented everything that happened to him, writing 450 criminal complaints about his mistreatment during his 358 days in detention. The complaints detailed exactly who did what to him, where, when and how. His testimony from beyond the grave is the most detailed account of human-rights abuse coming out of Russian prisons since Alexander Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago.
From such a granular record of abuse, we expected some sort of justice in Russia. However, the Russian authorities circled the wagons and exonerated everyone involved, even promoting and giving state honours to some of the most complicit. When it became clear that we weren't going to get any justice in Russia, we sought justice elsewhere.
In 2010, I started working on an initiative to have Western countries impose visa bans and asset freezes on the people who killed Sergei. During this year, I met Canadian human-rights legend, Irwin Cotler, the former Liberal justice minister who famously represented Nelson Mandela and Natan Sharansky when they were unjustly imprisoned. He was also one of the longest-serving and most respected members of Parliament.
When I told Irwin of Sergei's terrible ordeal and my idea to bring him some measure of justice using targeted sanctions against his killers, Irwin's reaction was clear and immediate: We need to do this in Canada. A year later, he introduced a private-member's bill to impose visa bans and asset freezes on the people who persecuted Sergei in Russia. His bill was introduced at the same time as a similar bill was introduced in the United States and the European Parliament.
The United States was the first country to impose sanctions. In 2012, the House of Representatives approved the Magnitsky Act (by a vote of 365-43); it then passed the Senate (92-4), and President Barack Obama signed it into law on Dec. 14, 2012. The law publicly names those involved in the Magnitsky case, as well as other Russian human-rights abusers, bans them from the United States, and freezes their U.S. assets. There are currently 39 people on the Magnitsky list, 32 of whom were involved in Sergei's case.
We had a similarly successful legislative initiative at the European Parliament in April, 2014, where they unanimously approved a 32-person sanctions list in a recommendation to the EU Council of Ministers.
Unfortunately, Canada is the one country where we are falling behind in this campaign. Irwin Cotler's initiative never quite made it to the finish line. On March 25, 2015, he presented a motion in the House of Commons calling on the then-Conservative government to "explore and encourage sanctions against any foreign nationals who were responsible for the detention, torture or death of Sergei Magnitsky or who have been involved in covering up the crimes he exposed." The motion was unanimously approved and the government pledged to me and to Irwin that it would implement it. Sadly, time ran out before anything could be done, but during the election campaign all parties, including the Liberals, pledged to implement Magnitsky sanctions if elected.
I will be in Ottawa this week to hold the new Liberal government to that promise. While it may be easy for Canadians to support the banning of Russian torturers and murderers from Canada, there's a real chance of resistance from the government, despite the pledges made.
Every new government around the world begins its mandate in a state of hopefulness that it can engage with Russian President Vladimir Putin and "talk sense" to him. They don't want to implement Magnitsky sanctions for fear of upsetting Mr. Putin and Russia. I hope that this will not be the case in Canada. History has shown that whatever engagement the Liberal government would like with Mr. Putin can occur alongside a Canadian Magnitsky law.
For example, opponents of the U.S. Magnitsky Act used the same argument when that legislation was debated, and it was combined with threats from Russia. However, fast forward four years and Russia continues to engage in talks with the United States about Syria and Iran, in the same weeks that Russian human-rights violators were added to the U.S. Magnitsky list.
While the Canadian government may soon realize that it's not possible to "talk sense" with Mr. Putin, it is possible to hold his officials accountable for their actions. And it is vital that we do so.
"Magnitsky sanctions" are incredibly effective because they target human-rights abusers and kleptocrats where it hurts most – in their wallets. Publicly naming people on an international sanctions list brings an end to their financial life; no reputable bank will open accounts for them, and most companies will not do business with them. By targeting individuals, Magnitsky sanctions spare innocent Russians who make up the majority of the country's population, as opposed to punishing a country for the wrongdoings of a few. Such sanctions are akin to the cancer drugs that target only the cancerous cells, rather than the entire body.
It is time for Canada to show that it is still a leader in the world of human rights. This non-partisan legislation has the potential to change the way we fight human-rights abuses around the world. We now have a tool that provides unique and significant repercussions to human-rights abusers; it is like having an iPad for human rights, when all we knew before was the typewriter. We no longer need to watch passively while atrocities occur outside our borders. This is an opportunity for Canada to be a real innovator in the fight for better human rights around the world. I implore you to take it.