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Opinion Dion’s craven Russian appeasement on Magnitsky

Bill Browder is the author of Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man's Fight for Justice

In the six years since my lawyer Sergei Magnitsky was murdered by the Putin regime for uncovering a massive government corruption scheme, I have been on a worldwide campaign to get justice for him. At first I tried to find justice in Russia, but Mr. Putin circled the wagons and exonerated those involved. My next step was to look for justice outside of Russia. That proved to be equally fruitless. I quickly realized that there are no instruments of justice in the West for crimes committed in authoritarian regimes like Russia.

I was not willing to accept the impunity and the injustice of it all and began approaching government officials and lawmakers all over the world to find a way to create consequences for the people who killed Sergei.

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Eventually I found something that worked. The people who killed Sergei did it for money, but once they stole the money they did not want to keep it in Russia; as easily as they stole the money from the Russian people, the money could be stolen from them. Therefore, they keep their stolen money in the West. They travel to the West, they send their kids to study in the West and they take their wives and girlfriends to the West. Most of all, they want to enjoy the property rights, the safety and the rule of law that we have in the West.

This realization was the genesis of a new legal concept that became known as the Magnitsky Act, which uses targeted sanctions in the form of visa bans and the freezing of assets of Russian torturers and murderers.

The first country I tested this concept in was the United States. When I met with members of Congress, it quickly became apparent that it was an entirely one-sided argument in Sergei's favour. No one was going to lose a single vote in any constituency by banning torturers and murderers from coming to America; there was simply no domestic lobby for Russian torturers and murderers to oppose this initiative.

When the Magnitsky Act came up for a vote in Congress, it was a resounding success. It passed 92-4 in the Senate and had 89-per-cent support in the House of Representatives. It was signed into law by President Barack Obama on Dec. 14, 2012.

My next target was Europe. This was a little more complicated because of the large number of countries and interests, but Sergei's case was so compelling that when a 32-person Magnitsky sanctions list was introduced in the European Parliament, it did even better than in the United States, passing with 100 per cent of the vote.

Of all the countries I was approaching, I thought Canada would be the most receptive. Canada is home to more than four million immigrants from the former Eastern Bloc countries. Many of these Canadians have either witnessed first-hand or have family members who experienced the repressive conduct of authorities there.

It seemed the passage of the Magnitsky Act in Canada would be a formality. The first signs were promising. When the act was presented in the previous Parliament, it was passed unanimously. After that vote, then-foreign minister Rob Nicholson personally promised to make it happen.

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Then the election came, and the process was interrupted. Given the importance of this issue for many Canadians, all the parties, including the Liberals, made written campaign commitments to pass the Magnitsky Act if they formed a government.

When the Liberals won and Justin Trudeau formed his government, I thought it would be a symbolic and inspiring moment to visit Canada to see the new government implementing this important law to deal with human rights violators and kleptocrats.

Last week I travelled to Ottawa and stood with members of the three main political parties to announce the introduction of the Magnitsky Bill by Conservative MP James Bezan and Senator Raynell Andreychuk.

To my horror, instead of embracing the Magnitsky Act, Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion rejected it out of hand.

He justified his action by saying that existing laws already allow the Canadian government to do what Magnitsky is designed to do. Either this is an attempt to mislead the public or Mr. Dion is unaware that Canada's sanctions law, the Special Economic Measures Act, does not provide a mechanism to freeze the assets of human rights violators in Canada. The previous government had proposed a Magnitsky amendment to the law to address this issue.

Mr. Dion also explained his inaction by saying that Canada cannot work independently – that it must work with its allies and under recommendations from the international bodies of which Canada is a member. Yet Canada's biggest ally, the United States, has had this law in place for more than three years, as have various international organizations, including the ones Canada belongs to, such as the parliamentary assembly of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe; it recommended the adoption of the Magnitsky sanctions legislation by all member states almost four years ago in the Monaco Declaration's Resolution on Rule of Law in Russia: Case of Sergei Magnitsky.

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Every other argument Mr. Dion made can be easily shot down. The reality is that he just wants to make nice with Russia. He calls his policy "re-engagement," but it is simply appeasement in the rawest form. He is now saying to Russia, "We will allow your torturers and murderers to come to Canada and keep your money here as long as you just please talk to us."

This is a betrayal in every possible form. It's a betrayal of Canada as a country with a history of moral foreign policy. It's a betrayal of the explicit campaign promise by Mr. Trudeau's party. And it's a betrayal of justice – especially deplorable because it involves the appeasement of a dictatorial regime.

I am shocked that Canada, the country I expected to be the most robust on this issue, is failing completely.

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