The Magnitsky Act: The Moment of Truth
Ariel Cohen /
?his Thursday, the House Foreign Affairs Committee will put the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act up for a vote. The bill seeks “to impose sanctions on persons responsible for the detention, abuse, or death of Sergei Magnitsky, and for other gross violations of human rights in the Russian Federation, and for other purposes.”
This past May, Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak threatened to retaliate if the Magnitsky bill becomes law. Instead, the Kremlin should have acknowledged its failure to save a person’s life, conducted proper investigation, and thanked American lawmakers for trying to step in where Russian law enforcement failed so abysmally.
The death of Sergei Magnitsky in a Russian prison is a tragedy and demonstration of rampant corruption in the Russian state’s highest echelons. But it is also a symptom of graft and rampant crime blocking normal trade relations between the U.S. and Russia.
Sergei 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 corruption scheme that involved embezzlements of $230 million from the Russian Treasury by law enforcement and tax officials. After making accusations, he was arrested on fabricated tax evasion and tax fraud charges.
Magnitsky died in isolation at a Russian prison, where he was denied medical care and beaten mercilessly by guards; an investigation by the Russian Presidential Council on Human Rights has confirmed as much. This has not resulted in the punishment of those involved. Those who were in power remain in power, and some have even been decorated or promoted.
The Magnitsky bill is aimed at human rights abusers not only in the Magnitsky case, and not only in Russia, but around the globe. Individuals guilty of massive human rights violations would be refused visas, and their assets within the purview of the U.S. government would be frozen.
As we wrote in a recent Heritage Foundation Backgrounder, 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.
However, the Obama Administration erroneously views the Magnitsky bill as a threat to the Administration’s “reset” policy toward Russia. The Obama Administration would like to extend permanent normal trade relations to Russia as Russia prepares to join the World Trade Organization without passing the Magnitsky legislation.
The Magnitsky Act would provide a modern system to pinpoint and punish gross violators of human rights while allowing U.S. firms to compete equally for business in Russia and elsewhere.
America should prioritize the rule of law—including individual rights, human rights, corruption, and organized crime—in its relationship with Russia. Congress should take action against those corrupt officials who systematically violate the natural rights of people—not just in Russia but across the globe.
The Sergei Magnitsky Act would not only empower Congress to take action against such individuals; it would send a message that the U.S. will support those who value the rule of law and freedom worldwide.