The US Senate passed the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act yesterday, a bill which introduces targeted sanctions on Russian officials deemed to have violated human rights, according to the Senate’s official website.
The bill simultaneously normalizes trade relations with Russia by repealing the Jackson-Vanik Amendment. That legislation, which the Washington Post calls “one of the last vestiges of the Cold War,” dates back to 1974, when the US put pressure on the Kremlin to grant Jews and other religious minorities emigration rights.
The Magnitsky Act is a new form of pressure. Its language allows the US to impose visa bans and asset freezes on Russian officials allegedly involved in the torture and death of whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky, as well as other gross human rights abuses in Russia.
The House of Representatives passed the bill on November 16, and it will now be sent to President Barack Obama for signing. Obama has opposed linking the Magnitsky Act to normalizing trade ties with Russia, but is expected to sign the bill into law.
Russian officials have called the measure “provocative” and warned that they would retaliate.
Speaking in Brussels on Thursday, Konstantin Dolgov, Moscow’s special representative on human rights and democracy, called it “unjust and unfounded,” Interfax reported.
Dolgov and others have repeatedly characterized the Magnitsky Act as an attempt to interfere in Russia’s internal affairs. But no one has been prosecuted or punished in the Magnitsky case, despite evidence that the whistleblower had been beaten and tortured in prison before his death in 2009. In an unusual step, Russian authorities are going ahead with a posthumous trial against Magnitsky, who they blame for the fraud despite his death.
The bill passed in a landslide vote, 92-4, the Washington Post reports. Many senators and activists are hopeful that it will encourage passage of similar laws in Canada and Europe. A common sentiment expressed in the press releases of a number of senators following the vote was that the US has a moral obligation to speak out for Magnitsky and others who are still alive and “languishing unjustly” in Russian prisons.