Canada and the Kremlin Clash on Magnitsky Act

How new Canadian legislation is surfacing decade-old tensions with Russia

On October 17, a bill allowing the Canadian government to impose sanctions on and ban travel of foreign officials accused of human rights violations, passed a final reading in the Canadian Senate. The following day the bill, aptly named the Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act or Bill S-226, received royal assent. Inspired by the Magnitsky Act in the United States, the bill will allow the Canadian government to prohibit Canadian business dealings with foreign nationals deemed “responsible for, or complicit in, extrajudicial killings, torture or other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.”

Although not named explicitly in the bill’s text, Russian officials were quick to protest the development.

Background

The story behind Bill S-226 dates back nearly a decade. In 2009, a Russian lawyer turned auditor, Sergey Magnitsky, died while in police custody in Moscow. He was investigating a tax fraud scheme allegedly used by Russia’s Ministry of Interior and Kremlin officials. According to his findings, Russian officials stole upwards of $230 million from Russia’s state budget over the course of several years.

When Magnitsky sued the Russian state, he was arrested. He died in police custody less than a year later. Magnitsky’s death made international headlines; however, U.S. Congress didn’t pass the Magnistky Act until lobbied by Bill Browder, the man who hired Magnitsky to investigate the fraud.

The intent behind the American legislation was to punish Kremlin officials complicit in Magnitsky’s death by prohibiting their entrance into the United States and freezing their financial assets within the American banking system.

At the time, the bill caused a major backlash in Russia. For instance, Americans were prohibited from adopting Russian children. According to Bill Browder the repeal of the bill has since become Russia’s top foreign policy priority. According to the Atlantic’s Julia Ioffe, the law caused significant frustration among Russian officials because: “it was the first time that there was some kind of roadblock to getting stolen money to safety.” So much so, in fact, that the bill was allegedly the subject of a July 2016 meeting between then presidential candidate Donald Trump’s team and Russian lawyer Natalya Veselnitskaya.

With a similar law on the books in Canada, the Kremlin’s diplomatic apparatus and the pro-Kremlin media are making a renewed and concerted effort to change the narrative surrounding Magnitsky’s death and discredit the sanctions.

Kremlin response

Ahead of Bill S-226’s royal assent, Russia’s Embassy in Canada posted two tweets on October 4, employing the tactics of whataboutism (accusing the adversary of hypocrisy) coupled with accusations of “Russophobia” (referring to any criticism of the Kremlin as cultural racism against the Russians).

(Source: Twitter)
(Source: Twitter)

After the bill was approved by the Senate, the Embassy shared three more tweets using similar language.

(Source: Twitter)
(Source: Twitter)
(Source: Twitter)

On the same day, Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Maria Zakharova said, “Any anti-Russian steps of Canada’s authorities will not be left without an appropriate response.” She went on to threaten adding new names for Russia’s “blacklists ”.

A day later, Russian Senator and the Head of the Upper House Committee for International Relations, Konstantin Kosachev posted on Facebook. He wrote:

This is yet another confirmation of the existence of the dangerous tendency when national legislation is applied to international relations. This undermines the very foundation of international law that was built on agreed positions of various parties as well as on voluntary acceptance of some common rules…Who has empowered Canada with the right to do such things in the international arena, to decide who is corrupt in other nations and who is not, to apply repressive measures to foreign citizens?
(Source: Facebook.com)

Media response

Kremlin-funded and pro-Kremlin media coverage to the Canada’s bill was comparatively subdued. RT and Sputnik published several articles on the issue and, although largely one-sided, the two outlets published only a few factually incorrect statements. For example, in one of the articles on the Canadian Magnitsky Act, RT claimed that the U.S. officials prevented Russian diplomats from investigating cases when Russian children adopted by American families were subject to cruel treatment or died. There is no evidence of any such interference.

Kremlin-aligned Russian language media also published several articles critical of the bill. The most noteworthy article came from the Moscow-based Strategic Culture Foundation, run by a former head of Moscow’s Communist Party and member of the Soviet Politburo Yuri Prokofiev. On October 15, it published an interview with Alex Krainer, an author of a self-published e-book “The Killing of William Browder: Deconstructing Bill Browder’s Dangerous Deception”. The e-book, first published on Amazon, has since been removed from the platform for containing defamatory material.

Krainer’s interview contained several inaccuracies. For example, Krainer denies that Magnitsky was posthumously tried, which is not factually true. In July 2013, Interfax reported Sergey Magnitsky and Bill Browder were convicted in absentia for tax evasion. The prosecutors said the case was re-opened at the request of Magnitsky’s relatives who wanted him to be posthumously rehabilitated. Magnitsky’s widow, however, denied these claims and called the trial illegal.

The same interview was also published by TheRussophile.org. Separately, Alex Krainer’s op-ed, making the same arguments, was earlier published on a pro-Kremlin site thesaker.is.

Search Term Manipulation

What is curious is the position of the Strategic Culture Foundation article on Google search results. In a neutral Google search for “Magnitsky Canada”, the article is the first search result over the past week, outranking established Canadian media outlets and even the “Top stories” section. This sheds some new light on the role Google’s search algorithms play in spreading disinformation.

(Source: Google Search)

The article does not appear to be promoted as an advertisement, it could therefore mean that it is perfectly optimized for these search terms, which is unlikely considering Canada’s established news outlets have search engine optimization (SEO) optimization. A more likely explanation could be the use of aggressive SEO strategies, known as Black-Hat SEO, which includes using invisible text, keyword stuffing, spam comments and paid links. The use of such techniques is nearly impossible to verify.

Conclusion

Kremlin-funded and Kremlin-aligned media response to Canada’s new law was rather subdued compared to the response from the diplomatic corps. The DFR Lab will continue analyzing the coverage of the story in Kremlin-funded and Kremlin-aligned media.


Donara Barojan is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).

Follow along for more in-depth analysis from our #DigitalSherlocks.

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