The Cable

Congress goes after Russian officials for human rights violations

President Barack Obama is set to meet with Russian President Dmitri Medvdev on May 26 in France on the sidelines of the G-8 meetings. In advance of that meeting, Congress has unveiled a new bill to force the administration to sanction Russian officials for human rights violations.

"One of the core foreign policy objectives when we came into office was the Russia reset," Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told reporters on a conference call on Friday. "It has been one of the most productive relationships for the United States in terms of the signing and ratification of the New START treaty, cooperation on nuclear security, cooperation with regard to Iran sanctions and nonproliferation generally, the northern distribution network into Afghanistan that supports our effort there, and our discussions with Russia about expanding trade ties and their interest in joining the WTO, as well as Russia's increased cooperation with NATO that was manifested by the NATO-Russia meetings in Lisbon."

But Rhodes didn't mention what most in Congress see as Russia's backsliding on issues of democracy, freedom of the press, and human rights. A large group of senators introduced a bill on Thursday afternoon that they hope will force the administration to address this issue. Called the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011, it is named after the anti-corruption lawyer who was tortured and died in a Russian prison in 2009. The bill targets his captors as well as any other Russian officials "responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of human rights."

"Despite occasional rhetoric from the Kremlin, the Russian leadership has failed to follow through with any meaningful action to stem rampant corruption or bring the perpetrators of numerous and high-profile human rights abuses to justice," Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) said in a Thursday floor statement announcing the bill.

"My legislation simply says that if you are commit gross violations of human rights, don't expect to visit Disneyland, Aspen, or South Beach and expect your accounts to be frozen if you bank with us."

The bill requires the secretary of State to compile a list of names of human rights abusers in Russia, deny them visas, and requires the secretary of Treasury to do the same and freeze their bank accounts. The legislation would also bar their wives, sons, daughters, and other immediate family members from coming to the United States. The hope is that this legislation would spur similar action from the European Union.

The bill also outlines abuses by Russian officials in the treatment of several other Russian political prisoners, including Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose appeal to his 14-year jail sentence was postponed this week by a Moscow court.

Other co-sponsors of the bill include Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Mark Begich (D-AK), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Bob Casey (D-PA), Richard Durbin (D-IL), Mike Johanns (R-NE), Mark Kirk (R-IL), Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Tom Udall (D-NM), Roger Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), and Roger Wicker (R-MS).

Last month, Congressman Jim McGovern (D-MA) reintroduced the House version of The Magnitsky Act, which "imposes visa and economic sanctions on Russian state officials who are responsible for human rights abuses, torture and the death in custody of Sergei Magnitsky in November 2009."

The Obama administration hasn't commented publicly on the bill, but The New Republic reported that NSC Senior Director for Russia Mike McFaul is supportive. "We actually agree with those in Congress who are concerned about the erosion of democracy in Russia," he told TNR, adding, "It was bad when we got here, but it is bad today."

The bill could also be a substitute for the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which was put in place in the 1970s to punish Russia for its treatment of Jewish would-be emigrants, but now stands in the way of Russia's accession to the WTO.

Kirk told The Cable in a Friday interview that this bill was one part of a larger effort in Congress to reassert itself on the issues of democracy and human rights in Russia.

"It's needed because Russia has slowly devolved into a one party state with a very strong ruler, and that leads to arrogance and a very aggressive anti-U.S. foreign policy, which is becoming increasing difficult to deal with," he said. And who was he referring to? "The real ruler of Russia: Putin."

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