A bill introduced in the Russian Duma last Tuesday would allow the Foreign Ministry to blacklist foreigners believed to have violated the rights of Russian citizens. The bill is an angry response to the Sergey Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, which was introduced in Congress last month with bipartisan support. The Magnitsky legislation is named after Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer for Hermitage Capital, which in the mid-2000s was the largest Western portfolio investor in Russia. Magnitsky died a torturous death after prison authorities deliberately denied him medical care.
Magnitsky was a classic whistleblower: He exposed a large-scale tax fraud of $230 million sanctioned by law enforcement officials who also shut down Hermitage Capital Russia. Clearly, the authorities denied him medical care, as he entered the prison healthy. He subsequently died in pre-trial detention with unexplained injuries including bone fractures and bruises.
The Magnitsky legislation in the U.S. would impose visa restrictions on and freeze the U.S. assets of 60 Russian officials linked to his persecution. In addition, the bill would target other Russian officials involved in serious human rights violations, torture, and illegal economic activities.
On the surface, the Russians’ response bill is being hailed as protection for its citizens abroad from unfair foreign prosecution. Individuals blacklisted by Russia’s Foreign Ministry would be barred from entering Russia and their assets in Russian banks would be frozen. Predictably, it appears the Duma has little interest in protecting citizens at home from corrupt law enforcement officials and from the court system, which President Dmitry Medvedev himself calls out of control.
The bill has support in all four Duma factions—the ruling United Russia as well as the tame opposition: Just Russia, Communists, and the ultra-nationalist “Liberal Democrats.” However, Oleg Denisenko, the deputy of the Communist Party, has asked that the language be expanded to include people from former Soviet republics—particularly Belorussian President Alexander Lukashenko, who has been warned by Russian officials about his jailing of Russian citizens and journalists in particular.
The bill also targets U.S. officials prosecuting Russian criminals in the U.S., such as in the case of the notorious arms dealer Victor Bout. Bout, who allegedly supplied arms to terrorists and African warlords, was extradited from Thailand to New York despite concerted attempts by the Russian government to prevent it.
If the bill passes in the Duma (Lower House) and Federation Council (the Upper House), it will require the signature of President Medvedev to become law. Medvedev has recently been working hard to nurture ties with Washington in the framework of the “reset” policy, and it is unclear whether he would support such legislation. His mentor—and likely successor—Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is a different story, as he never misses an opportunity to criticize the U.S.
In any event, it is unmistakable that by introducing this bill Russia is signaling it is eager to engage in one-upmanship with the West and is upset about America’s Magnitsky bill. Yet the Russian Duma “counter-measures” bill will do nothing to improve Russia’s abysmal track record on rule of law and denials of justice to its citizens.
Anton Altman is a research volunteer at The Heritage Foundation.