During this past July, the image of an empty cage in a Moscow courtroom filled the airwaves as the Kremlin concluded the trial of a dead man. Nearly four years after he was imprisoned, tortured and killed, for discovering a massive fraud scheme among Russian government officials, Sergei Magnitsky, was put on trial and found guilty of fraud last week in a Moscow courtroom. The verdict was characterized as “one of the most shameful moments since Stalin” and proved that even the dead cannot escape the incredibly high 99% conviction rate in Putin’s Russia.
A few weeks later, anti-corruption activist and pro-democracy opposition leader, Alexey Navalny, was handed a 5 year sentence after being charged with embezzling $500,000 while advising a regional governor in the Kirov region. Former Russian Deputy Prime Minister, Boris Nemtsov said that the trial was “completely fabricated from start to finish, and even the judge could not say what the reason for the crime was”. By the afternoon, thousands of Navalny supporters took to the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg where dozens were arrested and beaten. They continued their protests into the night chanting “freedom, freedom!” and “Navalny”.
Acquiescing to domestic and international public pressure, the Kremlin reversed its decision a few days later, releasing Navalny, pending an appeal. The trial was clearly intended to bump Navalny out of any future political races – including Parliamentary and Presidential. The Kremlin’s decision was intended to hedge bets against increased public protests: by allowing Navalny to run the Kremlin presents itself as being open and democratic. However, if Navalny leads the mayoral race, the Kremlin can quickly put him in prison and remove him from the ballot.
The frequency of politically and financially motivated cases being disguised by Kremlin authorities as “economic crimes” is accelerating at an alarming rate, as is the willingness of Putin’s government to use foreign institutions to muzzle international critics. In May the Kremlin issued an arrest warrant for Sergei Magnitsky’s co-defendant and former boss, Hermitage Capital CEO, William Browder. Browder has been leading the international campaign to have visa bans and asset freezes placed on Russian officials who profit from the abuse of human rights and corruption – angering many high level Russian politicians and bureaucrats. In late Spring, the Kremlin applied to have Browder placed on Interpol’s international arrest list – restricting his ability to travel and exposing him to the risk of arrest and extradition. In a surprising turn, Interpol refused the Kremlin’s request due to the politically motivated nature of the request.
The Kremlin has tried using similar tactics in two other cases with clear Canadian connections. In late July, the son of an iconic Estonian literary figure and international security expert, Eerik Niiles Kross, had his Kremlin request for detention declined by Interpol. In 2010, Russian authorities claim that Kross hijacked a Russian freighter while Kross himself was half-way around the world. Kross, who helped Georgia navigate through the 2007 Russian invasion of North Ossetia and Abkhazia was a well known, high profile, thorn in the Kremlin’s side. Kross’ wife Mary, is a Toronto born artist who now lives in Tallinn and New York. Kross, who was on the Kremlin’s wanted list for over a year, was unable to travel to the couple’s home in New York or visit his wife’s family in Canada due the Kremlin’s Interpol requests.
In February, Thornhill, Ontario resident and Canadian citizen, Oleg Galouchko, was detained by Finnish authorities while traveling through Helsinki. The Kremlin issued an Interpol arrest alert and Galouchko is now awaiting extradition to Russia. According to Finnish media reports, Galouchko, who owned an aluminum plant in Russia in the late 90’s, was approached by Russia’s largest aluminum producer to buy his factory ten years ago. After he refused, Russian FSB security services applied pressure and government tax authorities conducted raids, which eventually caused the plant to shut down. Charges of tax evasion and other economic crimes were laid, and while some of the charges were dropped, Galouchko is facing atrocious conditions and possible death in Vladimir Putin’s prison labour camps. Sadly, Galouchko’s case is not unique in Russia where corrupt officials routinely fabricate evidence in cases to steal assets.
Canada can help curb corruption and encourage freedom,democracy and the rule of law in Russia by adopting Canadian Magnitsky legislation. Former Justice Minister, Irwin Cotler, tabled a private members bill in 2009 that would place visa bans and asset freezes on Russian officials who were responsible for and profited from the torture and death of Sergei Magnitsky. An expanded bill, that would cover all human rights abusers and corrupt officials would put those individuals on notice and would provide active support for human rights and democracy advocates who would no longer fear arbitrary arrests. It would also help protect Canadians doing business in Russia and stop corrupt Kremlin officials from using Canada to hide and protect their assets.
Sadly, the current Canadian government has remained absolutely silent on issues of Russian human rights and democracy. While most other western nations immediately condemned the Navalny verdict, Canada nor its foreign minister, John Baird, have yet to issue a statement or even a simple Tweet.
By Marcus Kolga