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Magnitsky Bill Clears Key U.S. Senate Panel

  • Richard Solash

The Magnitsky case has become a potent symbol for government critics. Here, opposition leader Boris Nemtsov holds a portrait of the late lawyer as he protests police lawlessness in front of the Interior Ministry in Moscow in March.

The Magnitsky case has become a potent symbol for government critics. Here, opposition leader Boris Nemtsov holds a portrait of the late lawyer as he protests police lawlessness in front of the Interior Ministry in Moscow in March.

A key U.S. Senate panel has unanimously endorsed legislation that would punish Russian officials connected to the prison death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.

After several delays, clearance by the Senate Foreign Relations committee was considered the greatest hurdle to the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act potentially becoming law.

The bill calls for visa bans and asset freezes for officials involved in gross human rights violations anywhere in the world, but was crafted specifically in response to Magnitsky's 2009 death in pretrial detention.

Magnitsky had implicated top officials in a complex scheme to defraud the Russian government of $230 million before he was arrested in 2008 on fraud and tax evasion charges. A number of the officials that Magnitsky had implicated were behind his arrest.

He died after nearly a year in custody, during which he was denied medical care and beaten. Just one low-level prison doctor has been charged in Russia in connection with the case while senior officials connected to the case have been promoted.

Magnitsky has since become an international symbol of Russia's rights failings, prompting his supporters to seek justice outside of the country.

Senator Benjamin Cardin (Democrat-Maryland) has spearheaded the U.S. effort, drawing up a list of 60 allegedly complicit Russian officials.

U.S. Senator Benjamin Cardin

U.S. Senator Benjamin Cardin

He hailed the June 26 vote, saying, "The main purpose is to have countries take action on their own -- that they should hold those who violate these standards accountable under their own laws. Our greatest desire is to see the countries of the world take that type of action, starting with Russia."

William Browder, the CEO of investment firm Hermitage Capital, which Magnitsky was representing at the time of his arrest, has led an international campaign to hold Russia accountable. He told RFE/RL after the vote that Magnitsky's family and friends should gain "a measure of comfort," but that they would not rest until the bill becomes law.

Battle For The Bill

Advancing the bill this far has not been easy.

Cardin and the bipartisan group of 36 senators who have co-sponsored the legislation fought for months to bring it to a committee vote, amid opposition by the administration of President Barack Obama and concern that the measure could undermine the "reset" in U.S.-Russian relations.

On June 20, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that some U.S. officials would be barred entry to Russia if the Magnitsky bill becomes law.

Senator John Kerry (Democrat-Massachusetts), the committee chairman, who some say has represented the administration's position, said he "still has issues" with the legislation, but would not oppose it.

"There have been accomplishments [in Russia's democratic development] and there have obviously been, in some people's observations, missteps and setbacks. And I say that very mindful of the need for the United States not to always be pointing fingers and lecturing and to be somewhat introspective as we think about these things and some ways we can do better ourselves," Kerry said.

"But nevertheless, human rights are in our DNA. We will always be a nation that stands up and fights for people's human rights."

U.S. Senator John Kerry

U.S. Senator John Kerry

The bill, as Cardin puts it, is meant to "name and shame," but the U.S. government would still be able to keep secret the names of officials it sanctions under the measure if it determines that revealing their identities would endanger national security.

At the vote, senators approved an amendment introduced by Cardin that mandates the federal government to explain to senators any decision to keep names off the public record.

Kerry, who expressed concern that the information could be leaked, was alone in opposing the amendment.

On June 7, a House of Representatives panel approved a similar piece of Magnitsky-related legislation.

The House bill specifically applies to Russia, while the version passed by the Senate Committee is meant to be applied to rights offenders worldwide.

The difference will have to be resolved before the full Congress gives its final stamp of approval.

Veto Not Expected

From there, analysts say Obama is not expected to veto the bill.

Passage of the Magnitsky legislation has become tied in Congress to repealing the Cold War-era Jackson-Vanik Amendment, a step needed to grant Russia permanent normalized trade relations with the United States. The Obama administration has pushed for the move, without which Washington will be at a disadvantage upon Russia's upcoming entry into the World Trade Organization.

"To some extent [the advancement of the Magnitsky bill] is a blow to the Obama administration," said Andrew Kuchins of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"They had certainly opposed the Magnitsky legislation earlier this year, but the writing on the wall in the spring seemed very, very clear -- that there was no way that permanent normal trade relations status for Russia was going to go through without some version of the Magnitsky legislation going forward as well. So I think they have simply had to accept reality."

Kerry, meanwhile, said he "does not view [the Magnitsky bill] as a completely finished product," suggesting that provisions of the bill could change before the full Congress considers it, expected later this summer.

Should the legislation become codified as U.S. law, it is expected to act as a precedent for other Western parliaments to adopt similar measures.
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