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U.S. Congressman Plans Legislation In Russian Prison-Death Case


Friends and relatives pay their last respects to lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, November 20, 2009.
Friends and relatives pay their last respects to lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, November 20, 2009.

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Congressman Jim McGovern (Democrat, Massachusetts) has pledged to introduce legislation that would revoke the U.S. visas of some 60 Russians connected to the death of anticorruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in a Moscow prison.

McGovern made the vow at a hearing of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, which he co-chairs.

"I think people who are involved in serious human rights violations -- at a minimum -- should not be allowed to travel to the United States, and other countries should do the same thing. And we should be figuring out a way to make sure that their assets are frozen,” he said.

“People who commit murder, and I think that's what happened in that case, should not have the right to travel here and invest in business here and make money here and there should be a consequence. If we can't get the consequence to happen in Russia, well then maybe there's something we can do here [and] maybe other nations can do the same thing," McGovern said.

Magnitsky's death in Moscow's Matrosskaya Tishina detention center on November 16 sent shockwaves throughout Russia and reached the top ranks of government.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev dismissed 20 prison officials and ordered an inquiry in the case but no charges have been brought to date.

Anticorruption Crusade

Magnitsky, a 37-year-old anticorruption lawyer for the investment advisory firm Hermitage Capital Management, endured harsh prison conditions and was repeatedly denied medical care during a nearly a year in pretrial detention.

He was jailed after implicating top officials from the Interior Ministry, Federal Tax Service, Federal Security Service, Prosecutor-General's Office, and other agencies in a $230 million scheme to defraud the government.

The Moscow Public Oversight Commission, an independent group charged with monitoring human rights in Russian jails, concluded that Magnitsky had been tortured in an effort to get him to withdraw his testimony.

William Browder, the CEO of Hermitage Capital Management, has been leading a campaign to prosecute those responsible for Magnitsky's death. He first drew U.S. attention to Magnitsky's arrest in July 2009 at a hearing of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, and he appeared before Congress's human rights panel on May 7 to press his case for justice.

Ahead of his appearance, he told RFE/RL’s Russian Service, “"Six months has gone by and not a single person who was involved in the torture and death of Sergei Magnitsky has been prosecuted. And even after the president of Russia has asked the prosecutor to investigate, not a single thing has been done.

“It's time -- if the Russians can't bring justice for Sergei Magnitsky -- it's time that justice is brought outside of Russia," he added.

Congressional Attention

Browder's appearance in Washington comes less than two weeks after U.S. Senator Benjamin Cardin, 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 death.

Under a presidential proclamation issued by President George W. Bush, the government has the authority to ban foreign visitors who have engaged in or profited from foreign corruption.

The legislation McGovern plans to introduce would go even further, in that it will prevent the dozens of Russian officials and others connected to the corruption case and Magnitsky's death from making U.S. investments.

McGovern said his bill would draw Congress' attention to the issue and also send a message to the White House.

"One of the things that I would like to do is we'll not only send a letter to Hillary Clinton, but I think we should introduce legislation and put those 60 people's names down there and move it through the committee and make a formal recommendation from Congress, pass it on the floor, and say to the administration, 'This is a consequence. You have to do this. Because if you don't, nothing's going to happen,'” McGovern said.

McGovern vowed to work with Browder in drafting the legislation, which is expected to begin next week.

Speaking to RFE/RL after the hearing, Browder said he was pleased that the support of Cardin and McGovern means he has advocates for his cause in both houses of Congress.

U.S. action, he said, could also help send a message to criminals that the Russian government refuses to send. "Sergei Magnitsky is one individual case. But it is one high-profile case where there are thousands and thousands of other cases just like it,” Browder said.

He added, “The people who do these bad things will continue doing them unless there is some way of challenging them and shining a bright light on them and showing them that there is no impunity."

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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