The United States House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill on Thursday to impose sanctions on a group of Russian officials connected to the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian anti-graft lawyer who died in a Russian prison.
Magnitsky was arrested in November 2008 on charges of tax evasion, days after he accused Russian state tax authorities of participating in a $230 million tax refund fraud. He died a year later in a Moscow pre-trial detention center.
According to the US Committee of Foreign Affairs, the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012 will impose “sanctions [visa ban and asset freeze] on those responsible for the harassment, abuse, and death of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who was murdered during his investigation of corruption in the Russian government.”
The bill was introduced in April, by the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission co-chairman Jim McGovern.
The opponents of the bill expressed fears that the new legislation would have a negative effect on the US-Russia relations, and could harm US exports to Russia. The U.S. National Foreign Trade Council (NFTC) urged the Congress on Wednesday to oppose the bill.
According to the NFTC President Bill Reinsch “The Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act is seriously flawed.” He adds that “This legislation would harm U.S. relations with Russia and many other nations, and would jeopardize the significant benefits arising from Russian concessions during its WTO accession negotiations.”
Others, like the US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul believe that the Magnitsky bill will not put a stop to US-Russian cooperation. “We think it would be a mistake to say that [the Magnitsky list] would prevent us from doing business deals or from cooperating on Syria or Iran. That's the principle we are trying to prevent,” he said on Thursday. According to McFaul, the Magnitsky bill is not necessary, as the US has already resolved the issue of keeping Russian officials involved in human rights violations out of the US.
Commenting on a provision in the bill which states that the names of the blacklisted individuals will be made public, McFaul said that “We don't want to talk about it publicly, it's our policy not to publish the list, we think this infringes the rights of those on the list because this list doesn't say you've committed a crime, this list says you don't get to our country.”
McFaul statements made during his speech at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow on May 25 caused a backlash from the Russian Foreign Ministry which threatened to retaliate.
The Chairman of the US Committee of Foreign Affairs Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said on Thursday that “The entire world knows that the state of democracy and human rights in Russia, already bad, is getting worse.”
Ros-Lehtinen added that “Moscow devotes enormous resources and attention to persecuting political opponents and human rights activists, including forcibly breaking up rallies and jailing and beating those who dare to defy it. Instead of the rule of law, Russia is ruled by the lawless. That can be clearly seen in the high-level corruption that pervades the government from top to the bottom, from the Kremlin to the lowly bureaucrat.”
Referring to Russia’s strong reaction to the Magnitsky bill, Ros-Lehtinen stressed that it is the policy of Russian officials to make threats of retaliation against countries such as the US which openly criticize the “rampant corruption that is aided and abetted by Moscow.”
“We would very much like to avoid it,” Yuri Ushakov, President Vladimir Putin’s top foreign adviser said on Tuesday. “But if this new anti-Russian law is adopted, then of course that demands measures in response.”