On Tuesday, the Senate Foreign Relation Committee unanimously passed the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, which would ban Russian officials involved in Magnitsky’s death from entering the U.S. and using U.S. financial institutions. The bill was cleared earlier this month by a House committee.
Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov called the Senate committee’s decision “counterproductive” and threatened “harsh” retaliation, including banning certain U.S. officials from visiting Russia. This past May, the Russian ambassador also threatened to retaliate if the Magnitsky act becomes law.
Be that as it may, the Obama Administration and Congress should not yield to Russian threats but should uphold America’s commitment to human rights. Russian officials should have thanked American lawmakers for stepping in where Russian law enforcement failed abysmally.
Magnitsky’s in a Russian prison is a demonstration of rampant corruption in the Russian state’s highest echelons. Magnitsky was a 37-year-old attorney and accountant who worked for Hermitage, then the largest Western private equity fund in Russia. In the course of his work, he uncovered a giant alleged corruption scheme that involved embezzlements of $230 million from the Russian treasury by law enforcement and tax officials.
After making accusations, he was placed in prison, where he was beaten mercilessly by guards and denied medical care, which led to his tragic death. An investigation by the Russian Presidential Council on Human Rights has confirmed as much. However, this has not resulted in the punishment of those involved. On the contrary, some of the culprits were even promoted and decorated.
The Russian government’s inability, procrastination, or unwillingness to prosecute human rights abusers has prompted the U.S. Congress to take action. It doesn’t really matter that the individuals responsible for Magnitsky’s death might not even think of visiting the U.S. or keeping their money in U.S. banks. The Magnitsky bill is aimed at human rights abusers not only in the Magnitsky case, and not only in Russia, but around the globe. The bill is also meant to signal that the U.S. will always support those who value the rule of law and freedom worldwide.
The Obama Administration has viewed the Magnitsky bill as a threat to its “reset” policy toward Russia. The Administration wants to extend permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) to Russia without passing the Magnitsky legislation as Russia prepares to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) in August.
Last week, the Senate and House held hearings on Russia’s looming WTO entry. Senator Max Baucus (D–MT), who chaired the Senate Finance Committee hearing, rightly said in his statement that the U.S. should not disregard human rights and democracy and pledged to include the Magnitsky bill in the PNTR legislation.
As we wrote recently, the U.S. needs to take new measures to protect human rights in Russia and elsewhere before moving on to normalizing trade relations with Moscow. Targeted legislation like the Magnitsky Act would be an effective way to encourage Russia to respect the rights of its citizens—despite the empty threats of the Duma.