WASHINGTON -- A U.S. congressional committee has approved legislation targeting human rights abusers worldwide with sanctions modeled after the Magnitsky Act, a U.S. law punishing Russians deemed by Washington to be rights violators with visa bans and asset freezes.
The U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee approved the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act at a May 18 hearing that included fireworks over whether to name the bill after a whistle-blowing accountant who accused Russian officials of a massive tax fraud before his death in a Moscow jail.
The legislation is named after Sergei Magnitsky, who died in November 2009 while in custody after alleged beatings, torture, and medical negligence that supporters claim were retribution for implicating tax and law enforcement officials in a $230 million tax scam.
It echoes the Magnitsky Act, which U.S. President Barack Obama signed into law in 2012 and which has infuriated Russia. Moscow says the law constitutes interference in its sovereignty and has enacted its own sanctions against U.S. officials in response.
The Kremlin also responded by banning U.S. citizens from adopting Russian children, a move that rights activists and Western governments decried as a cruel form of blackmail that punishes orphans and disabled children.
'Gratuitous Slap At Russia'
U.S. lawmaker Dana Rohrabacher (Republican-California) argued that naming the legislation after Magnitsky would provoke Moscow unnecessarily and that the circumstances surrounding his death remain in dispute.
"By putting Magnitsky in the title, we are taking a gratuitous slap at Russia, and we are confusing people about the real purpose of this bill," said Rohrabacher, who has advocated for greater U.S. cooperation with Moscow, particularly on counterterrorism efforts.
"The purpose of this bill is not just to attack Russia. We already have legislation doing that, specifically on Magnitsky."
Rohrabacher also launched broadsides against William Browder, a U.S.-born British investor who employed Magnitsky and who led the campaign that resulted in the 2012 law that sanctioned several Russian officials for their alleged involvement in his death.
Rohrabacher portrayed Browder as a rapacious businessman circulating a potentially false narrative about how and why Magnitsky died.
"We need to look into this and ask some serious questions before we just accept what is being handed to us," said Rohrabacher, who added that he supported the bill's goal of sanctioning rights abusers worldwide and only objected to its title.
This sequence of events surrounding Magnitsky's death has been thoroughly documented by Browder and others -- including, in part, by the Kremlin's own human rights council.
Moscow and like-minded allies have recently made Browder and the Magnitsky legislation the target of an international lobbying push.
Several committee members voiced sharp disagreement with Rohrabacher’s proposed amendment, calling Magnitsky a victim of Russian corruption and abuses and defending the inclusion of his name in the legislation as a way to remind Americans about the Kremlin’s human rights record.
"We must put this name on this bill. We must make it clear to Vladimir Putin and his friends in Russia that there are international standards we will adhere to and insist they adhere to," Representative Gerry Connolly (Democrat-Virginia) told the hearing.
Approval of the legislation means it will now be sent to the House of Representatives for a full vote. The U.S. Senate passed its version of the bill in December.
'No Doubts' In Magnitsky Case
Representative David Cicilline (Democrat-Rhode Island) told the hearing that there "are really no doubts about the veracity of the case of Sergei Magnitsky."
"The Russian government has had no shame when it comes to the case of Sergei Magnitsky, the details of which have been pored over, verified by multiple sources, and verified again," Cicilline said. "To allow the Russian government any modicum of influence over this legislation, including its name, would be shameful."
The United States has publicly sanctioned a total of 39 Russians under the Magnitsky Act, which targets individuals linked to Magnitsky's death and other alleged rights violations. Most of those either are tied to the tax fraud that Magnitsky disclosed, or to the prison where he was held.
A Moscow court in 2013 tried Magnitsky posthumously and found him guilty on tax-evasion charges, sparking outcry from Western governments and rights groups. Browder was convicted in absentia on the same charges a well.
Senior Russian officials and Kremlin-controlled media in recent months have sought to discredit both Browder and Magnitsky, portraying them as fraud artists.
This push has coincided with Russian efforts to undermine support for Magnitsky-related sanctions in Brussels and Washington.
Earlier on May 18, The Daily Beast reported that Rohrabacher last month received a letter from a Russian source during a visit to Moscow stating that "there is not a jot of truth in Browder's story, but this is the doctrinal essence of the story known as the 'Magnitsky case' put in as a basis for the U.S. Act."
The report quoted Rohrabacher's spokesman as saying that the letter "came from the Russian government itself," though he declined to provide further details about the source.
Rohrabacher "simply wants to give [the letter] careful consideration," The Daily Beast quoted the spokesman, Ken Grubbs, as saying. "He recognizes that various partisans are impatient for a conclusion, but he wants intellectual honesty to prevail, which requires some patience."