WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Barack Obama has signed into law legislation
that grants permanent normal trade relations to Russia and Moldova while also paving the way for sanctions against Russian officials implicated in the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.
"I think the legislation is important legislation -- all of it -- and the president was happy to sign it," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters after the bill was signed on December 14. "He believes it's an important step forward in our relationship with Russia."
By permanently exempting Moscow from trade barriers imposed by the Cold-War-era Jackson-Vanik Amendment, the United States will look to benefit from increased commerce with Russia afforded by its August entry into the World Trade Organization.
The attached Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act mandates the president to publicly name Russian officials that he determines are responsible for the death of the Russian whistleblower. The officials will then be subject to U.S. visa bans or visa revocations as well as asset freezes.
But the legislation extends well beyond the Magnitsky case. Obama must also designate Russians to be sanctioned whom he deems guilty of "extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations" of human rights perpetrated against individuals "seeking to expose illegal activity carried out by officials of the government of the Russian Federation" or who are defending rights and freedoms in the country.
The legislation instructs the president to make his determinations after considering data submitted by Congress, other countries, and NGOs. Regarding the Magnitsky case, Obama is expected to work from a list of more than 60 Russian officials compiled by lawmakers who introduced the legislation.
Magnitsky, 37, died in a Moscow jail in November 2009 after implicating officials from Russia's Interior Ministry, Federal Tax Service, Federal Security Service, and other agencies in a $230-million scheme to defraud the government.
He was repeatedly denied medical care and allegedly tortured during nearly a year in pre-trial detention on what supporters say were trumped up financial-crimes charges.
His case, which has become a symbol of human rights and rule of law transgressions in Russia, generated an international outcry.
Russia has prosecuted only one low-level prison official linked to Magnitsky's death, while promoting several others. The Russian prosecutor-general's office is also pursuing a posthumous case against Magnitsky for tax evasion.
The U.S. sanctions move is expected to lead to similar measures in several other Western countries and has infuriated Moscow.
The clock now begins ticking for Obama to submit the names of implicated Russian officials. He has 120 days to do so, but also has the option of keeping some of the names in a secret annex if he determines that it is "vital for the national security interests of the United States."
However, the legislation also mandates the president to use that option "in such a manner consistent with congressional intent."
The president must also submit justification for his decision to Congress and must also respond to requests from lawmakers regarding the status of individuals that they consider to be deserving of sanctions.
Lawmakers who support the sanctions say their power is in "naming and shaming" and have already cautioned the president against overuse of the secret annex.
Amid protest by Moscow, the Obama administration at first publicly opposed the Magnitsky sanctions. Congressional sources familiar with the matter say the White House eventually accepted that its objections would be overruled by Congress and decided to support a Russia-specific version of the legislation as opposed to one that was global in scope.
Moscow has railed at the U.S. move. A statement
posted on the Russian Foreign Ministry's website after Obama signed the legislation called it "odious."
"We certainly understand the hidden agenda of this political game started by those who are against the improvement of Russian-American relations. They are eager to use any pretext to 'punish' Russia for its independent and principled position in international affairs," the statement said.
Also on December 14, Russia's State Duma passed in a first reading a bill drafted in response
to the Magnitsky Act that would impose visa bans and in some cases, financial sanctions, against U.S. citizens said to have violated the rights of Russians. The Interfax news agency reports that the bill is expected to be signed into law by President Vladimir Putin on January 1.