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Bill Browder in Toronto on Nov. 8.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Bill Browder, the U.S.-born financier who successfully campaigned for Western countries’ adoption of a law to target human-rights abusers, says he’s concerned Canada is only infrequently employing its version of what’s called Sergei Magnitsky legislation to target wrongdoers around the world.

In 2017, under then-foreign affairs minster Chrystia Freeland, a friend of Mr. Browder, Canada joined an international effort to adopt versions of the Magnitsky legislation, named after Sergei Magnitsky, a whistle-blower who died in a Moscow prison.

The Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act, or JVCFOA, also called the Sergei Magnitsky Law, received royal assent in Canada in late 2017.

Mr. Browder, in testimony to the Senate foreign affairs committee Thursday, said he had great hopes for Canada’s Sergei Magnitsky Law after it passed Parliament.

“It felt like Canada really had stepped into the fray, had expressed its moral leadership. And it felt like we were on a really good trajectory.”

He said he’s puzzled why Canada no longer uses it. “I scratch my head and, and I say, why not? And I don’t have a good explanation,” he told the Senate.

Sanctions experts say the last time Canada used Magnitsky legislation to levy sanctions on those accused of human-rights abuses was 2018, when Ottawa targeted those responsible for the death of Saudi Arabian journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi.

Asked about Mr. Browder’s remarks, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly’s press secretary, Adrien Blanchard, noted Canada earlier this month announced sanctions targeting the Russian officials “who were involved in gross human-rights violations and enacted a witch hunt against Vladimir Kara-Murza and other Russian dissidents.” He described them as “Magnitsky style” sanctions.

But Canada did not use the Magnitsky Law to implement these November sanctions. It used the Special Economic Measures Act, or SEMA, an older piece of legislation.

Mr. Browder noted a number of requests for Magnitsky style sanctions have gone unanswered.

“I know many, many victims’ groups from China, from Venezuela, from Iran, that have petitioned the Canadian government to sanction the people involved in their persecution and what happens is they send in applications and it goes into a black box,” he said. “The government stays dead silent.”

He said Canada appears to have sanctioned less than 100 people using the Magnitsky law while the United States has sanctioned hundreds.

Canadian sanctions experts say the Magnitsky Law remains unused, despite the fanfare that accompanied its introduction, because Ottawa is instead relying on the earlier legislation to accomplish the same task. They note the government modified SEMA, first passed in 1992, to include similar grounds for sanctions – gross and systematic violations of human rights – as the Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act, which targets gross violations of human rights. Corruption, a second grounds for Magnitsky sanctions, was also added to SEMA.

Ottawa seems to prefer the earlier law.

Since then, all of Canada’s new sanctions – against China, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Russia – have been implemented under SEMA.

“Parties are still being sanctioned on grounds that are the same or similar as those under the Magnitsky Law, but just under different legislation,” lawyer John Boscariol, head of McCarthy Tétrault’s trade and investment group, said.

“It just doesn’t have Sergei Magnitsky’s name associated with it.”

Andrea Charron, director of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at the University of Manitoba, said one benefit of using SEMA is it’s more versatile. The Magnitsky Law cannot be applied to entities, only individuals, who have committed some very specific types of crimes. “And many of the sanctions against Russia are to seize the assets of entities owned by Russian oligarchs,” Prof. Charron said.

She said she felt the Magnitsky Law was hurried through Parliament without sufficient scrutiny or amendments.

“SEMA is frankly a better thought-out and more flexible tool. JVCFOA was so geared toward preventing/highlighting the torture of Magnitsky (a specific case by a specific state) and it was rushed through Parliament; we are now seeing its disadvantages,” Prof. Charron said.

Mr. Boscariol said he believes another reason Ottawa prefers SEMA is that sanctions under this legislation are imposed against a country rather than individuals. “Using the SEMA sanctions also sends a message that broader measures against the named country could be coming.”

Mr. Blanchard said SEMA is a better bet.

“In essence, SEMA contains all of the key provisions of the JVCFOA, but allows for greater flexibility and greater reach,” he said. “Since Feb. 24, this has been key in allowing our government to rapidly co-ordinate with allies and maximize the pressure on the Putin regime” in Russia.

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