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U.S. Senator Seeks Visa Sanctions In Russia Prison-Death Case

  • Heather Maher

Friends and relatives pay their last respects to Sergei Magnitsky in November.

Friends and relatives pay their last respects to Sergei Magnitsky in November.

WASHINGTON (RFE/RL) -- A senior U.S. senator is leading a push for the U.S. government to permanently cancel the U.S. visas of some 60 Russian officials and others linked to a corruption case and the death of the lawyer who uncovered it.

The case involves a $230 million tax-fraud scheme that was exposed by Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer for the Hermitage Capital Management investment advisory firm.

After testifying in the case against top officials from Russia's Interior Ministry, Federal Tax Service, Federal Security Service, and Prosecutor-General's Office, among others, the 37-year-old Magnitsky was arrested and jailed.

The Moscow Public Oversight Commission, an independent group charged with monitoring human rights in Russian correctional facilities, concluded that he had been tortured in an effort to get him to withdraw his testimony and died after being denied medical care for a serious illness.

Today Senator Benjamin Cardin (Democrat, Maryland), who chairs the U.S. Helsinki Commission, sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton requesting that she "immediately cancel and permanently withdraw the U.S. visa privileges of all those involved" in the corruption case and Magnitsky's abuse and subsequent death.

Cardin told RFE/RL that he wants the Russians' U.S. travel privileges revoked to send a strong message that their activities are unacceptable to the United States.

"This is a major issue, a violation of human rights, the corruption issues that were apparent, the fact that [Magnitsky] was held for so long in prison without trial, mistreated in prison, this is a very serious human rights violation," Cardin said.

He added that "the United States needs to make it clear to the international community that we won't accept that type of conduct."

Testimony, Then Arrest

At a July 2009 Helsinki Commission hearing in Washington, commission members heard from Hermitage Capital's CEO, Bill Browder, that Magnitsky had discovered that Russian Interior Ministry officials -- including deputy division head Artem Kuznetsov and investigator Pavel Karpov -- had helped orchestrate a $230 million payout in tax refunds to a criminal group.

Browder said Magnitsky chose to testify against the powerful officials and was subsequently arrested at home in front of his family by security forces who reported to the very officials he had implicated.

At the time of the hearing, Magnitsky had been languishing in pretrial detention for almost a year, but was still alive.

In his letter to Clinton, Cardin cited a presidential proclamation issued by former President George W. Bush that allows the United States to ban foreign visitors who have engaged in or profited from foreign corruption.

Cardin told Clinton that canceling the visas would "send an important message to corrupt officials in Russia . that the U.S. is serious about combating foreign corruption and the harm it does."

No Prosecutions

But Cardin told RFE/RL that Magnitsky's death in custody also needs to be answered for.

"It's very clear that the underlying corruption has not been dealt with, that this is an extreme case of corruption that needs to hold the people that are responsible accountable," he said, adding, "the imprisonment of Sergei, who brought this to light -- being in prison solely because of willingness to stick to his principles-- his mistreatment in prison, that, also. Those responsible for that need to be held accountable. I think this is a major issue that Russia needs to deal with."

Whether the Russian government agrees it needs to do more remains to be seen. Shortly after Magnitsky's death last November, President Dmitry Medvedev fired several corrections officials in connection with the case.

No one has been prosecuted for Magnitsky's death or for involvement in the original corruption case.

In Washington, where this spring the White House has been toasting successes in its "reset" of U.S.-Russian relations, the question is whether this case -- like the unsolved murder of Russian journalist and human rights advocate Anna Politkovskaya -- will become a sticking point in the two countries' bilateral relationship.

Obama's foreign policy is built at least partly on a philosophy that says the United States can -- indeed, should -- cooperate on issues of shared interest with governments it disagrees with on other issues.

That has led human rights advocates to criticize the White House for things like negotiating with Russia and China on economic and security issues despite both countries' records of serious rights violations.

Cardin said he doesn't think his push to ban some Russian government officials from the United States will jeopardize other areas of U.S. cooperation with Moscow.

"I think it's important for bilateral relations that you are capable of bringing up issues of concern without jeopardizing the other issues that you have between two countries," he said.

He said the United States believes it has "a mature relationship" with Russia but it also believes that "this is an issue that needs to be addressed."