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Global Magnitsky Legislation Clears Another Hurdle In U.S. Senate

Russian opposition activists and human rights defenders release black balloons in front of the Kremlin to mark the sixth anniversary of the death in prison of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in Moscow on November 16, 2015.

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Senate has again backed new legislation that broadens executive authority to sanction human rights abusers worldwide, a measure building on an earlier law that has infuriated the Kremlin.

The measure that passed on June 14 came as part of a larger bill that sets guidance for U.S. defense priorities for the coming year.

Among the scores of amendments attached to the National Defense Authorization Act was one authored by Senator Ben Cardin (Democrat-Maryland) that would target human rights abusers worldwide with sanctions.

The bill is modeled after the Magnitsky Act, a law passed by Congress in 2012 that punishes Russians deemed by Washington to be rights violators with visa bans and asset freezes.

That law is named for Sergei Magnitsky, a whistle-blowing Russian lawyer who helped uncover a massive tax fraud. He was jailed on related fraud charges and later died in a notorious Russian prison allegedly after being tortured, according to his supporters, Western governments, and international rights groups.

Most of the 39 Russians hit by the 2012 law were accused of being connected either to Magnitsky's death in 2009, or the $230 million tax scam that he identified while working with the investment firm Hermitage Capital Management.

Incensed by the law, the Kremlin retaliated by imposing a ban on the adoption of Russian children by U.S. citizens.

The Senate had passed a stand-alone version of the amendment, known as the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, last year but its fate in the House of Representatives was uncertain. So its backers attached it to the defense bill as a backup, according to a congressional official familiar with the procedure.

Last month, the legislation cleared an important hurdle when the House Foreign Affairs Committee approved it.

But some House lawmakers have questioned the widely accepted narrative surrounding the tax fraud and Magnitsky's death, and sought to strip it of its association with his death.

Magnitsky's family and friends say the Kremlin and its allies are behind a vigorous lobbying campaign to undermine the law that includes quiet outreach to members of Congress.

The Senate defense bill, with the Magnitsky amendment, must still be reconciled with a similar defense bill making its way through the House.

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent in Prague, where he reports on developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and money laundering. Before joining RFE/RL in 2015, he worked for the Associated Press in Moscow. He has also reported and edited for The Christian Science Monitor, Al Jazeera America, Voice of America, and the Vladivostok News.