United States: House Passes Magnitsky Act

Published: 19 November 2012


The U.S. House of Representatives passed the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act on Friday, a bill which would create targeted sanctions for the officials involved in the case of Sergei Magnitsky and other human rights abuses in Russia.

The Magnitsky language was included in a larger piece of legislation which gives Russia and Moldova permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) status. It is the portion of the bill which appears to have the most bi-partisan support.

Representative Sandy Levin (D-Mich), told reporters that the Magnitsky legislation was included to recognize “that when you talk about trade, you have to look at a fuller picture.”

Chris Smith (R-NJ), said the bill sent a strong message of U.S. support for human rights standards around the world. “Murderers and torturers are not welcome in this country,” Smith stated.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla) said she voted for the bill expressly because of the Magnitsky language, even though she worries that restoring trade relations with Russia seems too generous when Russia is thwarting U.S. interests in other areas and pursuing policies in Iran that the U.S. opposes.

In Russia, however, the focus is on the Magnitsky sanctions. Russian Foreign Ministry envoy Konstantin Dolgov told Radio Free Europe that the bill “cannot be called anything other than unfriendly and provocative,” and that the Russian response would be “adequately firm.”

Under the act, sanctions would ban visas and freeze assets of not only those who were involved in the detention and death of Magnitsky and those who profited in the criminal conspiracy he uncovered, but also those who are responsible for “extrajudicial killings” and violations against whistle blowers and political opponents.

Human rights activists hope that it will finally lead to a more serious investigation of the Magnitsky scandal. Russian activist Lev Pononmaryev told the Interfax news agency, "sooner or later, they will have to resolve this problem in Russia. Whether this issue will be addressed immediately after the USA passes the law, I do not know. Nevertheless, the adoption of the law in the USA will be a step in the right direction."

To become a law, the bill has to be approved by the Senate and signed by President Barack Obama.

Some analysts in Russia predict that this will be harmful for relations between Moscow and Washington.  One reporter opined that the act itself – and in particular, the paragraph which  gives the Secretary of State license to make alterations to sanctions, based on U.S. interests – is largely superfluous, given that a blacklist of persons allegedly associated with Magnitsky’s death was created to prevent them from getting visas 18 months ago.

“The general mood in the USA is in the vein of the Cold War,” Sergei Mikheyev, the Director of the Centre of Political Situations, told the Voice of Russia.

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has insisted the Magnitsky affair is an internal problem, being dealt with at the highest levels.  But the American legislation points out that no officials have been brought to trial. The US bill reads:

“The systematic abuse of Sergei Magnitsky, including his repressive arrest and torture in custody by officers of the Ministry of the Interior that Mr. Magnitsky had implicated in the embezzlement of funds from the Russian Treasury and the misappropriation of 3 companies from his client, reflects how deeply the protection of human rights is affected by corruption.”

OCCRP published the names of two persons who benefited from the Magnitsky money.  OCCRP showed through documents of bank transfers that Denis Katysv, the son of a prominent Russian businessman and Vladlen Stepanov, the husband of a Russian tax official, received some of the funds.