Human Rights Bill Roils US-Russia Relations

Nataliya Magnitskaya (L), mother of Sergei Magnitsky, grieves over her son's body during his funeral at a cemetery in Moscow November 20, 2009.
Nataliya Magnitskaya (L), mother of Sergei Magnitsky, grieves over her son's body during his funeral at a cemetery in Moscow November 20, 2009.
James Brooke

First, Russia’s prime minister, Vladimir Putin, accused Washington of backing protests against him. Then, on Monday, Mitt Romney, the leading U.S. Republican candidate, told CNN that Russia is Washington’s “number one geopolitical foe.” The incidents stand as another roadblock to better U.S.-Russia relations.

Russia is finally set to join the World Trade Organization in August, after 20 years of talks. When it does, American companies could lose out because of a law passed almost four decades ago that restricted trade with the Soviet Union over its refusal to allow Jews to emigrate.

The Soviet Union no longer exists. There is visa-free tourism between Israel and Russia. But a Cold War relic - the 1974 Jackson-Vanick Amendment - would result in higher tariffs for American exports to Russia.

U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul speaks of the impact.

"Now that Russia is joining the World Trade Organization, if we still have Jackson-Vanick on the books, then our companies will be at a disadvantage vis-à-vis other European, Chinese, Brazilian companies doing business here in Russia," said McFaul.

But before repealing this old law, the U.S. Congress is considering a new human rights law for Russia - one that is already roiling relations between the United States and Russia.

The Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act would freeze American bank accounts and deny U.S. visas to corrupt officials and human rights violators around the world.

The Kremlin sees the law as aimed at Russia, and in many ways it is. Sergei Magnitsky was a Moscow lawyer who uncovered a $230-million tax fraud, allegedly by government officials.

His employer, American-born investor Bill Browder, charges that these very same officials engineered Magnitsky's arrest and death in a Moscow jail in 2009. He says Magnitsky was denied medical treatment for 11 months, and in November 2009, was handcuffed to a prison bed and beaten to death by eight riot policemen.

Sergei Markov, director of the Institute of Political Studies, a pro-government think tank, complains that the case only gets attention because of the American connection:

"Hundreds of people are dead in Russian prisons because of violation of law from prison authorities, but nobody investigates against, except Mr. Magnitsky. Why? Because he's only one whose death has been connected with Mr. Browder," said Markov.

In Russia’s season of middle-class discontent, however, the Magnitsky murder has struck a chord. One Internet survey found 19,000 stories on the case in the Russian press.

Michael Weiss, spokesman for the Henry Jackson Society, a London-based think tank, explains why he thinks the case has had such an impact.

"What has really resonated is that this guy was not a political opponent of the regime. If anything, he just was a lawyer doing his job and assumed, possibly naively, that the state would thank him for exposing corruption, and instead they blamed him for it. So Sergei Magnitsky is the everyman of Russia, which is why I think his story is so powerful," said Weiss.

In Moscow, leaders of the recent mass opposition street protests are saying the U.S. Congress should repeal Jackson-Vanick - and then pass the Magnitsky bill.

Last year, the U.S. State Department quietly placed an American travel ban on several Russian officials connected to the case. Now, the European Parliament, Canada, Sweden and the Netherlands are joining the U.S. Congress in considering visa bans for 60 Russians involved in the case.

"It basically hits Russians where it hurts the most. It says, 'Look, you can’t come to the U.S. You can’t spend your ill-gotten gains on Madison Avenue. You can't open bank accounts in HSBC, or whatever.' That’s where you really get them," said Weiss.

Russia's government is fighting back, arguing that there are no court convictions in the case.

Markov, who held a seat in Russia's parliament as a member of the ruling United Russia party, said the intensity of the U.S. reaction to the Magnitsky case is unjustified.

"Russia, of course, is much more liberal and democratic compared with Soviet Union, but criticisms of Russia in U.S. Congress and Senate are much bigger than during the Soviet Union. It's [a] clear violation of the common sense. And the reason [for] this violation of common sense [is] pretty clear: it's Russophobia."

Natalia Pelevine, coordinator of the Committee for Democratic Russia, tried to organized a Magnitsky protest rally last Saturday in front of Russia’s Interior Ministry. She was denied a protest permit. A small protest took place anyway, and police arrested two demonstrators.

"The Russian media is once again lying, when it says the Russian people see the Magnitsky Act as an attack on Russian people in general, because Russian people don’t feel that way. Russian people are smart enough to understand that this Magnitsky Act is very specifically directed at very corrupted Russian officials," said Pelevine.

Determined to fight back, Russian prosecutors now are pursuing a novel strategy - they are charging Sergei Magnitsky with tax evasion.

Since he is dead, his mother is required to sit in his place. The next court session will be April 3.

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Comment Sorting
by: Alexander v.Pinoci
April 05, 2012 3:27 AM
A "Human Rights Bill" is a wonderful idea, but it should be universal and not only directed against Russia. However the Bill should also include a "search" of our conscience ... have we not, and are we not, committing human rights abuses? "What is good for the Gander is good for the Goose"! Our "laundry" is quite dirty ... so before we preach to others, lets clean up our own act!

by: Lee
March 27, 2012 11:06 PM
In fact every prision has undiscovered scandals except russian......

by: Gennady
March 27, 2012 5:38 PM
It’s blasphemy & a precedent when Magnitsky, the dead man, is charged & when his abandoned old mother forced to represent her murdered son in the show-off court. By whom? By collaborators defending the abuse of the Constitution. I agree with Natalie Pelevine. Director Markov plays into hands of the anticonstitutional regime as he calls Russophobia the justified reaction of the USA on violations of basic human rights under the dictator.

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