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Proposed U.S. Law Would Punish Those Implicated In Russia's Magnitsky Case

  • Richard Solash

Friends and relatives pay their last respects to lawyer Sergei Magnitsky at his funeral in November.

Friends and relatives pay their last respects to lawyer Sergei Magnitsky at his funeral in November.

Two senior U.S. lawmakers have introduced legislation in Congress that would block U.S. visas and freeze the financial assets of dozens of people they say are responsible for the 2009 prison-death of a Russian anticorruption lawyer.

Senator Benjamin Cardin (Democrat, Maryland), who co-chairs the U.S. Helsinki Commission, and U.S. Representative James McGovern (Democrat, Massachusetts), who heads Congress's Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, introduced the "Justice for Sergei Magnitsky Act of 2010" into the House of Representatives today.

Magnitsky, a 37-year-old lawyer for the investment advisory firm Hermitage Capital Management, was repeatedly denied medical care during nearly a year in pretrial detention. He was detained after implicating top officials from Russia's Interior Ministry, Federal Tax Service, Federal Security Service, and other agencies in a $230 million scheme to defraud the government.

Magnitsky died in November in a Moscow detention center. Since then, his case has garnered international attention.

The proposed legislation would require the U.S. State and Treasury departments to impose restrictions on all those who "were engaged in any act that was instrumental in causing Sergei Magnitsky's death."

It's a group that the bill's authors say includes not only those who that had a direct hand in the death, such as officials from Russia's prison system and courts, but also those who committed the fraud that Magnitsky uncovered, for a total of some 60 people.

Looking For Justice

William Browder, the CEO of Hermitage Capital Management, has spent much of the last year petitioning Congress to act on the Magnitsky case. He said he has looked to Washington to provide a measure of justice that Moscow hasn't.

"We had the police who tortured and murdered Sergei Magnitsky, so who could we go to for protection if the police were the ones participating in the crime?" said Browder. "And so by having something that takes place outside of Russia, like this law, is an extremely powerful and important thing because it creates consequences for the people who do this."

Following Magnitsky's death, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev opened a probe into the case, sacked 20 prison officials, and pushed through a law allowing suspects accused of financial crimes to go free on bail.

No charges have been brought to date and the Russian Prosecutor General's office announced earlier this month that its probe is continuing.

Senator Cardin told RFE/RL that while the law is first and foremost about Magnitsky, its larger goal is to help change the way things work in Russia.

"This is about an act that we think was outrageous -- a whistleblower who brought to the attention of the Russian government corruption within their own country, who was persecuted as a result of it, and ultimately lost his life. So it's about Mr. Magnitsky, but it is also about changes in the system that would not allow something like this to happen in the future," the senator said.

Senator Benjamin Cardin co-chairs the U.S. Helsinki Commission
The proposed law calls for the restrictions to be lifted only after a list of conditions have been met. Russia must conduct a thorough investigation into the young lawyer's death, bring those responsible to justice, take steps to bring its penal and justice systems "into compliance with international standards," strengthen legal protection for whistleblowers, and recognize "the contribution of Sergei Magnitsky in the fight against corruption and for the rule of law."

"I chair the U.S. Helsinki Commission, where 56 countries have joined together to say, 'Look, what happens in your country is a matter of interest in every country that belongs to the OSCE,'" Cardin added. "So we have a right to challenge conduct that we think violates the spirit of the commitments made under the OSCE, and obviously the Russians have the right to say the same thing about us. But we have a responsibility to bring these issues to the public attention."

'Blacklisted Like Terrorists'

The Hermitage's Browder said the legislation also aims to encourage other countries to follow suit. He said he hoped those responsible would one day be "blacklisted like terrorists."

"There's no way to get justice for Sergei Magnitsky because the only justice would be for him not to be dead," said Browder. "But it does do something, which is it causes these people some pain, and the other thing it does is, it's real moral leadership. We have been going around the world and talking to other governments, other parliaments, other administrations about doing the same thing, and somebody had to do it first."

Just hours before the bill was introduced in the U.S. Congress, British Foreign Secretary William Hague called for a "thorough and transparent" investigation into Magnitsky's death.

Browder says he has had "detailed conversations" with the British government officials who told them they are considering sanctions similar to the proposed U.S. law.

Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski has also said that if international institutions establish a list of people involved in Magnitsky's death, Poland would consider visa sanctions.

Cardin said he didn't think the "Justice for Sergei Magnitsky Act" would have a negative impact on U.S.-Russian relations, which President Barack Obama has successfully "reset" since coming into office last year.

Human rights groups have accused Washington of downplaying Russia's human rights abuses in order to strengthen strategic cooperation. The White House says it continues to press Moscow about the unsolved murders of journalists and human rights activists, and that it regularly raises the need to protect the rights of civil society and opposition groups.

The Cardin-McGovern legislation must be approved by a committee and then by the full Congress before coming to Obama for signature.

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