Irwin Cotler On Why He Believes He Was Poisoned In Russia

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Irwin Cotler says he was poisoned in Russia during a 2006 visit (CP)
Irwin Cotler says he was poisoned in Russia during a 2006 visit (CP)

When Russia issued its blacklist of 13 Canadians on Monday, Irwin Cotler was quick to express his honour at being included.

“I wear my exclusion from Russia as a badge of honour and am proud to be in such distinguished company," he said in a statement.

"I have no intention of visiting Siberia. I have no investments in Sochi. I have no desire to visit Moscow and be poisoned as happened on my last trip."

Yes, poisoned.

HuffPost Canada's Althia Raj asked the Liberal MP for the backstory, and he said he hasn’t discussed the episode with anyone other than his family and friends until now.

It happened in 2006, when he was in Russia on a parliamentary delegation. He was dining with NDP MP Joe Comartin, who ordered the exact same meal but “nothing at all, happily, happened to him". However Cotler was not so lucky.

Here's the story in his own words:

“By the time, I got back to my hotel, I was violently ill. More than I had ever been almost in my life, and I started to throw up blood. I called the people in the hotel and told them I needed a doctor. Instead of sending a doctor, they sent up people to clean up all the blood -- in other words, all the evidence that a doctor would need.

“I called the Canadian embassy in Moscow, and they sent a doctor and the doctor looked at me, examined me and told me I had to go right away to the hospital. And they took me into the Russian Medical Centre, the hospital in Moscow and I was held there for several days. I never knew exactly what was being done because I didn't understand Russian and they didn't speak English.

“I was subsequently discharged, not feeling well and returned to Canada. Some months later I met a friend of mine who actually had been one of the physicians attending [Soviet defector Alexander] Litvinov, who told me that all my symptoms were the same as Litvinov. Except that they, in my case, probably just wanted to intimidate me and temporarily disable me, but not to kill me.

“There were a number of incidents at that time, of people being poisoned. When I was at my reunion of my Yale Law School class, I learned from talking to my classmate who became a president of the European Court of Human Rights that he too was poisoned around the same time in Russia. So it didn't appear to be coincidental.

“But then, the final part about this, is rather intriguing. In 2010, during the Intra-Parliamentary Conference to combat anti-Semitism, I called the Russian Embassy in Ottawa because they hadn't yet given us the names of their parliamentarians to attend the conference and they said, 'Oh Mr. Cotler, we're sorry. We want to get two high-ranking people so please call us next week and we will give you the names.’

“And I called them back the next week, and they gave me the names and then they said to me, 'Why don't you come visit us in Russia?'

“And I said, 'You know, the last time when I was there, I was poisoned.’ And then, just like that, the answer was, 'We're sorry. That was a mistake, it won't happen again.’

“So I haven't been back since then, but now I guess they made it official that I am banned from returning. But it is not the first time -- I was arrested and expelled in 1979. I was banned at that time for defending political prisoners in the Soviet Union whom they accused of consorting with criminal elements in the Soviet Union and named them, like the great Andrei Sakharov, the human rights dissident.

“Now I suspect, it has nothing to do with the Ukraine but probably because I tabled a Private Member's Bill regarding Sergei Magnitsky."

Magnitsky was an accountant and auditor in Moscow who uncovered a corruption scheme and testified against several senior Russian officials. He was subsequently imprisoned and died in jail in 2009 at the age of 37. Cotler chairs an intra-parliamentary group on Magnitsky, and he says that is like a "red flag" to Russia.

"My sense is that's probably the retaliatory reason in my case."

Cotler said some of the Americans also banned by Russia were people who had worked on the Magnitsky file. Cotler has blogged about Magnitsky's case for HuffPost.

Cotler said he also doesn't think the sanctions Russia imposed on the 13 Canadians today will have any impact.

"I don't think it will have any effect. In my case, it only encourages me and inspires me to intensify my advocacy. And I don't need to go to Russia for purposes of that advocacy. Our intra-parliamentary group for Sergei Magnitsky is international, it contains parliamentarians from over 20 countries.”

Also on HuffPost:

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