U.S. Bill Targets Russians For Human Rights Abuses

Jul 12, 2012
Originally published on July 12, 2012 5:10 pm
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Members of Russia's upper house of parliament came to Washington on an unusual lobbying trip, but they are probably too late to accomplish their goal. At issue is pending U.S. legislation that would punish Russian officials involved in human rights abuses. The bill would freeze their assets and deny them visas.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The bill is named for Sergei Magnitsky, a young Russian lawyer who died in prison after allegedly being beaten and denied medical care. The Russian senators say the U.S. has the wrong impression about Magnitsky, who they believe was helping a company called Hermitage Capital dodge Russian taxes.

VITALY MALKIN: (Foreign language spoken).

KELEMEN: Magnitsky's arrest was absolutely legal, argues Vitaly Malkin, one of the Russian senators who came to Washington. Malkin, who's listed as a Russian billionaire by Forbes magazine, says while Magnitsky's death in prison was tragic, he believes the U.S. is overplaying this.

Another member of the Russian Federation Council, Alexander Savenkof, says it makes no sense that U.S. lawmakers are trying to tie the Magnitsky bill to legislation that would repeal Cold War-era trade restrictions to ensure that both measure pass.

ALEXANDER SAVENKOF: (Foreign language spoken).

KELEMEN: That linkage is absurd, Savenkof told reporters at the Russian Embassy. He pointed out that the Cold War-era Jackson Vanik Amendment, which was meant to promote emigration from the Soviet Union, has been on the books for decades.

SAVENKOF: (Foreign language spoken).

KELEMEN: It has lasted from the Brezhnev era all the way through Vladimir Putin, he says. Savenkof and his colleagues warn that the Magnitsky bill could also become an irritant in relations for decades to come.

They didn't get to meet one of the main proponents of the bill, Maryland Democrat Ben Cardin, who didn't have the time according to his staff. Senator John McCain, though, did give the Russian delegation a fair hearing, though McCain's staff says the Arizona Republican hasn't changed his position.

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: The Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act has been passed by our Foreign Relations Committee and, no matter what you hear, make no mistake. It will become law.

KELEMEN: McCain made that comment recently at the headquarters of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which passed a resolution encouraging its members to impose sanctions on those implicated in Magnitsky's death.

MCCAIN: What happened to him was a horrific crime, but it's also an example - an extreme example, to be sure - but an example, nonetheless, of the pervasive and systemic corruption in the Russian government.

KELEMEN: The Russian senators say they're still hoping they can change minds in Washington about this and they've been circulating documents to bolster their case.

MALKIN: (Foreign language spoken).

KELEMEN: Vitaly Malkin says the main thing they heard from U.S. officials was, guys, why are you so late? Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.