A longtime activist in eastern Europe, repeatedly jailed for political dissent in the former Soviet Union, urged the Liberal government on Wednesday to live up to its promises and pass legislation to punish Russians defying human rights.

Mustafa Dzhemilev, the leader of Crimean Tatars, delivered the message to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and senior members of the Liberal cabinet, including International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland, who has been a high-profile advocate for Ukraine.

The Tatars, a largely Sunni Muslim ethnic group, have faced increasing persecution since Moscow's annexation of Crimea in the spring of 2014. Both Amnesty International and most recently a spokesman for the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights criticized their treatment at the hands of government officials.

"Human dignity is constantly being violated," Dzhemilev told CBC News in an interview through a translator, prior to testimony before the Senate foreign affairs committee on Wednesday. 

"If Western countries decide to re-establish relationships with Russia and become friends again, it is a disaster for the entire Crimean Tartar people."

Liberals shift approach

Dzhemilev's remarks are likely to deepen divisions within the government caucus over Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion's refusal to honour a Liberal campaign pledge to enact legislation to freeze assets and ban visas of Russians accused of involvement in human rights violations.

Last year, the House of Commons unanimously passed a motion calling for such a measure, but Dion recently told Parliament he doesn't feel obligated to do so. He has resisted public and private pleas from high-profile Liberals to change his mind.

Conservative MP James Bezan has put forward a private member's bill modelled on the U.S. Magnitsky Act, named for a corruption-fighting Russian lawyer who died at the hands of authorities. Conservative Senator Raynell Andreychuk also introduced the same bill in the Senate.

'Until the occupation of our land is over, we cannot make any deals.'
- Mustafa Dzhemilev, Crimean Tatar leader and human right activist

It's been suggested such legislation has the potential to harm Canadian business interests and provoke Russia, which treated the introduction of the U.S. law in 2012 as a major slight.

Dzhemilev, who is also a member of the Ukrainian parliament, said his people are concerned that Canada is softening its opposition to the annexation.

He testified he can't understand how anyone could start a dialogue with "a gangster," referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"Until the occupation of our land is over, we cannot make any deals," he said.

On Thursday, a spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Ottawa described Dzhemilev's comments as "deceitful," and claimed Tatars in Crimea enjoy "full constitutional rights and protections," as well as language rights.

Kirill Kalinin, in a statement, said that past injustices are being remedied, a reference to the 1940s deportation of the Tatar population.

Moscow considers Dzhemilev's organization —  the Mejlis — to be an "extremist group" and Kalinin accused it of organizing the recent energy, food and transport blockade of Crimea.

No military solution

Independent Senator Michel Rivard said the Russians will not be leaving any time soon and wanted to know short of all-out of war what could be done.

Despite the harsh tone, Dzhemilev said he doesn't see a military solution to the stalemate in eastern Ukraine.

Only through sanctions that bring the Russian economy to its knees will the region be "liberated," he said.

"We would want [Canada] to maintain a civilized discussion with Russia, but it depends on which conditions and under what circumstances," he said.

Dzhemilev encouraged the Liberal government to create a new international platform to discuss peace in Ukraine because the existing Minsk II agreement — brokered by Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany — made no reference to Crimea and is therefore flawed.

He raised it with Freeland, who "promised this question would be discussed."

As many as 10,000 Tatars have fled Crimea for parts of Ukraine, and Dzhemilev appealed for specific Canadian aid to help the displaced and to keep the ethnic community's television channel, which was forced to relocate to Kyiv, on the air.

Nuclear regrets

Two years ago, Dzhemilev advocated that Ukraine reacquire nuclear weapons given up in 1994, when Russia, Great Britain and the U.S. signed the Budapest Memorandum. That agreement guaranteed the territorial integrity of Ukraine in exchange for the country's acceptance of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

He conceded Wednesday that it was likely impossible for the country to go nuclear again, but said there is lingering bitterness in light of the continuing war.

"We had a huge nuclear potential and could have destroyed Russia," he said. "If we would have had that potential I don't think Russia would have occupied Crimea."

And when countries start talk about lifting sanctions or softening their approach to Russia, Dzhemilev said "at moments like that we feel betrayed." 

Andreychuk said she understood his concerns.