WASHINGTON -- A U.S. lawmaker who spearheaded legislation punishing accused Russian rights abusers plans to meet officials from the Obama administration to press for answers as to why it has failed to blacklist more Russian officials under the law.
U.S. Representative James McGovern, a Democrat from Massachusetts, said he is seeking a sit-down with the administration to discuss why it did not expand the blacklist authorized by the Magnitsky Act prior to issuing a mandatory report on the law last month that he called “disappointing” and short on detail.
“I expected more. But I want to give them an opportunity to explain to me why the brevity, why the omission of names,” McGovern, who first proposed the idea of the Magnitsky legislation at a May 2010 congressional hearing, told RFE/RL.
The legislation, passed at the end of 2012, introduces visa bans and financial sanctions on Russian officials implicated in the 2009 death of whistle-blowing lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.
The December report has not been made public, but an RFE/RL correspondent was allowed to view its one-page narrative portion, which includes general information about the 18 individuals placed on the inaugural blacklist in April by the State and Treasury Departments.
One congressional staffer familiar with the report echoed McGovern’s criticism, calling its narrative section largely a rehash of previously available details and unworthy of serious efforts by many administration officials to “fulfill the letter and spirit of the Magnitsky Act.”
“Frankly, I’d expect more from a school book report,” the staffer told RFE/RL. He also criticized the administration for submitting the document six days after the December 14 deadline mandated by the law.
White House National Security Council spokeswoman Laura Magnuson did not comment directly on these criticisms when contacted by RFE/RL. She said the document “outlined the actions that have been taken” by State and Treasury since U.S. President Barack Obama signed the law in December 2012.
A State Department spokeswoman provided a similarly worded statement to RFE/RL, adding that the report was submitted under the requirements of the Magnitsky Act.
McGovern said that as last month’s deadline for the report approached, he and his colleagues were expecting the administration to expand the original Magnitsky blacklist and were caught off guard when it opted not to.
Lawyer Sergei Magnitsky died in a Moscow pretrial detention facility in November 2009.
The report was submitted December 20, the same day that Republican Senator Bob Corker, the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry expressing concern that the administration would balk at expanding the blacklist so as not to risk the Kremlin’s cooperation on areas of mutual interests.
“I understand the administration may be concerned that an expansion of the Magnitsky list could undermine that cooperation,” Corker wrote. “But the Magnitsky Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama. We are all, therefore, obligated to ensure its full implementation.”
Both the White House and the State Department say additions to the blacklist are not required to be made in conjunction with the report, and a senior US diplomat said Wednesday that an expanded Magnitsky list is currently being considered.
“We are continuing to look at names that could be added to the list, and we will continue that process in the weeks ahead,” U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland told a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.
Magnitsky died in a Moscow pretrial detention facility in November 2009 while awaiting trial on charges of tax evasion. He was 37.
His friends and family say he was jailed, tortured, and denied medical treatment that could have saved his life as retribution for accusing law-enforcement and tax officials of stealing $230 million from Russian coffers in an elaborate tax fraud.
The law, which calls for sanctions against Russians involved in other human rights violations as well, has infuriated the Russian government, which calls it an unacceptable intrusion into its internal affairs.
The Kremlin responded in part by banning Americans from adopting Russian children, sparking a further deterioration in already strained ties between the two countries. Russia also issued a reciprocal blacklist targeting 18 US officials it accused of rights violations.
Russian President Vladimir Putin last year called Magnitsky’s death a “tragedy” but said it was not the result of criminal actions.
In July, a Russian court convicted Magnitsky of tax evasion in an unprecedented posthumous trial that sparked international condemnation.
The Magnitsky Act requires the U.S. administration to submit an annual report to Congress explaining the reasons for any additions to or removals from blacklist, as well as its efforts to encourage other countries to enact similar legislation.
The report submitted to Congress last month includes previously undisclosed information about the administration’s interactions with other governments concerning analogous legislation elsewhere in the world.
The State Department has “encouraged the governments of other countries to impose” similar sanctions and has “conducted several meetings with European lawmakers, both European Parliamentarians and lawmakers from EU member states” on the issue, according to the report.
“Some of these individuals are among the lawmakers from the 21 European countries who formed a commission to promote sanctions against Russian officials implicated in the death of Sergei Magnitsky,” it says.
The last two pages of the report -- which were not seen by RFE/RL -- list the names of the 18 individuals on the original blacklist and other information that has been available on the Treasury Department’s website since April, according to congressional sources who have seen the document.
McGovern told RFE/RL on January 15 that he is “in the process” of requesting a briefing with the relevant administration officials to discuss the Magnitsky report and sanctions “at the earliest possible time.”
“We’re working on the logistics of that as we speak, but hopefully it will be soon,” he said.