WASHINGTON—A bill that would grant the Russian Federation Permanent Normal Trade Relations, or PNTR, comes with a condition: punishment of Russian officials for human rights abuses resulting in the death of tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in 2009.
Magnitsky’s story “is emblematic of corruption, human rights abuses and impunity in Russia,” said U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.).
Magnitsky was a tax lawyer who exposed a $230 million tax fraud—the largest known tax refund fraud in Russian history—carried out by officials of the Russian government. McGovern told Magnitsky’s story during the House debate on Nov.15: “Lawyer Sergei Magnitsky was wrongly arrested and tortured in a Russian prison. Six months later, he became seriously ill. He was denied medical attention despite 20 formal requests.
“On the night of November 16, 2009—three years ago tomorrow—his condition became critical. Instead of being treated in a hospital, he was taken to an isolation cell, chained to a bed, and beaten by eight prison guards for one hour and 18 minutes, which resulted in his death.”
Chief Executive Director of Hermitage Capital Management William Browder, who had hired Magnitsky, testified that 59 of the 60 people involved in the Magnitsky case have been exonerated. Some of the guiltiest have been promoted and received state honors, he said.
The Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act bans visas and freezes the assets of those individuals responsible for the false arrest, torture, and death of Magnitsky. It applies as well to Russian officials engaged in corruption or gross violations of human rights.
Several Congress members with reputations as stalwarts for human rights were reluctant to grant Russia PNTR status because of the nation’s deteriorating human rights situation. Both Democrat Congressman Jim McGovern and Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen stated publicly that they would not have voted in favor of granting PNTR for the Russian Federation if it did not include the Magnitsky Act.
H.R. 6156, the bill granting PNTR, passed the House overwhelmingly by a vote of 365-43 on Nov. 15. It awaits action in the Senate.
Replacing a Cold War Human Rights Law
In effect, the Magnitsky Act will replace a Cold War human rights law that sought to curb abuses in the Soviet Union. The Jackson-Vanik amendment was also attached to trade law.
The amendment was created in 1974 to pressure the Soviet Union, through restricting trade, into allowing Jews to freely emigrate.
Then-President Richard Nixon opposed the amendment as he wished to relax tensions with the Soviet Union, according to a paper by Political Science Proffessor Gordon L. Bowen at Mary Baldwin College in Virginia. Russia conceded, however, as it depended on imported grain from the United States.
Obama is similarly wary of upsetting relations with Russia, but is expected to sign the bill into law.
When Russia became a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) last August, American exporters could not benefit from the expanded trade possibilities under WTO rules unless PNTR status was granted to Russia.
That meant that Jackson-Vanik would have to be lifted, which is what the bill passed in the House will do if it becomes law.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said adding the Magnitsky Act to the bill demonstrated the U.S. commitment to human rights in Russia.
“By requiring the President to publicly identify and impose sanctions on human rights violators in Russia, especially those involved in the death of Sergei Magnitsky and the subsequent cover-up, this legislation will make clear that the U.S. remains fully committed to advancing democracy and human rights in that country,” she said.
Browder said that the European Parliament passed a resolution to “impose Magnitsky sanctions in Europe.” Various parliaments in Europe and Canada are at various stages of their own Magnitsky resolutions, he added.
Russia for its part is not accepting the Magnitsky Act quietly, which it considers interference into its internal affairs. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov responded on Nov. 15 that the Magnitsky measure was an “unfriendly, provocative act,” as quoted in British publication The Guardian.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces are terrified of the Magnitsky Act, said Browder. They can commit crimes with impunity in Russia, but they cannot control world denunciation, he said. Three days after President Putin was inaugurated, he regarded “his third most important foreign policy priority was to fight the Magnitsky sanctions,” Browder said.
Human Rights Advocates Decry New Laws in Russia
On the same day as the House vote, McGovern chaired a hearing on Russian human rights. While the Russian government has always been challenged in its human rights sphere, after Vladimir Putin was re-elected in May, the situation has steadily worsened, say human rights advocates.
New laws have been passed that will be used to silence the voices of protest that have risen over the last year, testified Susan Corke of Freedom House.
“Human Rights Watch has an office in Russia for 20 years, and we firmly believe that a truly unprecedented political crackdown is presently underway,” said Tanya Lokshina, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Moscow’s office. McGovern said in the House that Lokshina and her unborn child had received threats that were probably connected to Human Rights Watch’s work in exposing impunity for human rights violations.
The new treason law, signed by Putin on Nov. 14, uses vague language to define espionage, said Corke. “Almost any conversation between Russian citizens and representatives of foreign organizations on human rights issues could now be considered treasonous—with jail sentences of up to 20 years,” she said.
“Whether treating HIV/AIDs, promoting environmental protection, or monitoring elections and human rights, any Russian non-commercial organization that received foreign funds for such activity can be branded a ‘foreign agent,’ or risk severe fines, suspension, and jail time,” Corke said. A group receiving foreign money will either have to register and “debase” itself as a “foreign agent” or severely reduce their work, said Lokshina. People will hesitate now before approaching international human rights organizations, Lokshina said.
“I was detained, interrogated, kidnapped, abused, and tortured. I was labeled as an American spy, with stories of my betrayal published in the government-controlled newspapers,” testified Fatima Tlisova, now with Voice of America’s Russian service. She said that merely being affiliated with American media was sufficient reason to be targeted by the Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB.
Russia’s parliament, the Duma, recently passed new amendments of laws against those who participate in “unsanctioned” public demonstrations, said Corke. “This puts opposition activists in real danger,” she said. Corke mentioned two opposition activists, Leonid Razvozzhayev and Sergei Udaltsov, who are being prosecuted with the ridiculous charges of “organizing mass unrest” and “plotting mass disorder,” respectively.
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