Hill Times | 17Jun2016 | Oksana Bashuk Hepburn

Nadiya Savchenko is free. Here's what Canada can do now

It should pass legislation to freeze the assets of human rights violators like those who violated the Ukrainian pilot’s rights.

The release of Ukrainian political prisoner Nadiya Savchenko is remarkable in that President Vladimir Putin, Russia’s autocratic bully, lost to a defiant woman.

Canada’s foreign minister, Stéphane Dion, called it “a positive milestone” and that Canada is “hopeful that other prisoners held by Russia on politically motivated grounds will be released.”

It is quite likely that Nadiya’s release comes with hard preconditions, perhaps the elimination of sanctions. Whatever happens next must not undermine her personal victory and Ukraine’s tough stand against his terror. Canada must hold firm and do more: pass legislation to freeze the assets of human rights violators like those who violated Nadiya’s rights.

She is a powerhouse: a Ukrainian military pilot with beauty, brains, and commitment to lay down her life for her country -- on the front in battle with Russia or in its prison, where she nearly died in a hunger protest. She is the stuff women’s magazines feature as role models, of books, and Hollywood films. Search worldwide and there is none other like her.

But she is more. She is a symbol of resistance to an autocrat determined to upset security and global order. This makes her every democrat’s hero.

Putin wanted to demonstrate power by incarcerating her, claiming she entered Russia illegally, trying her, finding her guilty despite the evidence, and sentencing her to 22 years in prison. He could do this because in Russia the heinous man is the law, the perversion of the law.

Nadiya’s heroism lies in not having caved. It’s the same spirit that defines Ukraine’s enduring resistance, be it its soldiers on the front, journalists exposing the crippling corruption, the thousands of volunteers who support the war, or the millions who support their homeland’s sovereignty every day.

Just like Nadiya did. Her unbreakable spirit draws strength from her feisty people and, in turn, feeds their courage, endurance, and love of freedom. It’s a great love nourishing all freedom-loving people of the world. This is why Canada and other democracies help Ukraine, not Mr. Putin, to win.

Nadiya Savchenko is a rock star for justice and the triumph of the individual over an autocrat and his state. No wonder that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko rewarded her with the Hero of Ukraine medal.

Stepping out of the presidential plane, she took off her shoes to feel the soil of her homeland once again and said, “I thank all the guys that stayed alive [on the front] and those that died for our Ukraine.”

She went on: “I’m not going to talk badly about people, I don’t want to share my hate, my anger, I hope that eventually I will only have wisdom…from those feelings. I don’t want people to want war, I want people to want peace. Unfortunately peace has to come out of war. I want to say ‘hi’ to Russians and tell them there’s nothing to be afraid of. You have to get up from your knees. I understand it’s not the easiest country to do that in.”

The words are visionary. They inspire, “The nation is a strong force. The essence of the democracy is for the nation to talk and to make [the authorities] hear it. We will be heard, as we are Ukrainians, and we’ve given our lives to be heard.”

It would be a betrayal of the universal spirit of democracy and freedom if the West were to cave to President Putin’s demands to lift sanctions, or to violate Ukraine’s sovereignty by forfeiting Crimea or Donbas.

Canada’s solid friendship requires holding firm to our values by supporting Ukraine. It means passing the Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act. Ukraine has a list of such individuals, known as the Savchenko list. Let’s have it.

Oksana Bashuk Hepburn, former public-servant policy adviser in the Canadian government and president of a consulting firm brokering interests between Canada and Ukraine, is a founding member of the Canadian Group for Democracy in Ukraine. She survived both the Nazi and Russian communist regimes.

[email protected]

The Hill Times