The Cable

In Washington, Russian senators push back against human rights bill

Four members of Russia's upper chamber were in Washington last week to ask Congress not to pass human rights legislation targeting Russia and to accuse the late Sergei Magnitsky, for which the legislation was named, of stealing millions through tax fraud.

Russian Federation Council members Valery Snyakin, Vitaly Malkin, Alexey Shernyshev, and Alexander Savenkov were in Washington July 7 through July 13 and met with administration and congressional officials, including Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, NSC Senior Director for Russia Alice Wells, Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Roger Wicker (R-MS), and Bob Corker (R-TN), and Rep. James McGovern (D-MA), among others.

On July 11, the visiting Russian lawmakers held a press conference at the Russian embassy to unveil their parliamentary investigation report on the case of Magnitsky, a Russian anti-corruption lawyer who died after allegedly being tortured in prison by Russian officials. Their message was that Magnitsky was guilty of tax fraud in Russia and that he died due to medical neglect, not torture.

Last month, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed the Senate version of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Act of 2012, a bill that would create a list of human rights violators all over the world and impose banking and visa restrictions on them. The bill was initially designed to punish Magnitsky's captors. The House version still only targets Russian officials.

Before his meeting with the Russian senators, McCain told The Cable he would press the Russian lawmakers on why they are so focused on discrediting Magnitsky, who is facing criminal prosecution for tax fraud even though he has been dead for more than two years.

"I'll ask them why they are putting a dead man on trial. That's not a system of justice that I'm familiar with," McCain said.

In their press conference, the Russian senators spent at least 30 minutes detailing how they believe that Magnitsky worked with William Browder, the CEO of Hermitage Capital, to defraud the Russian government of $230 million in tax revenue. The senators also released extensive autopsy and investigative reports to back up their contention that Magnitsky's death was the fault of his doctors and not Russian government or police officials.

According to that report, the doctors treating Magnitsky in prison made diagnostic errors and didn't prescribe him the right medicines. The report also claims that Magnitsky fought his captors and therefore force had to be used to get him to obey prison orders.

"The injuries on Magnitsky's body were most likely caused by multiple injuring impacts of a blunt object that might be possibly be a rubber baton," the report stated.

Browder told The Cable that the report was part of a new Russian strategy to seem active on the investigation of Magnitsky's death while limiting blame to the medical staff only, rather than the government officials above them.

"From what we have seen in the last few days, the Russians are trying to change their spin from outright threats to being more ‘reasonable,'" Browder said. "They are saying things like ‘please don't rush our investigation' and ‘prosecutions in the Magnitsky case are beginning, we are going after the doctor."

Browder has consistently denied he and Magnitsky are guilty of tax fraud.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) has promised to join the Magnitsky bill to another bill that would grant Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations status and repeal the 1974 Jackson-Vanik law that was meant to punish the Soviet Union for preventing Jewish emigration. His committee will mark up the PNTR bill July 18.

The Obama administration opposes the Magnitsky act, although it acknowledges that with it, Congress is unlikely to grant Russia PNTR status, which is needed for U.S. businesses to take full advantage of Russia's imminent accession to the WTO. The administration has warned that Russia will retaliate and disrupt various aspects of U.S.-Russian cooperation around the world.

Behind the scenes, GOP senators and congressional aides say, the administration is trying to water down the Magnitsky bill, for example by working to get the list of violators classified, and by trying to detach the Magnitsky bill from the PNTR legislation.

Classifying the list of violators would defeat the purpose of shaming them, McCain believes. As for the bill as a whole, "Hillary Clinton is trying to separate it completely. We're not going to let that happen," McCain told The Cable.

Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ), told The Cable that there's no way the GOP caucus will back off its demand to pass the Magnitsky bill as part of any move to grant Russian PNTR status.

"I think we should stand with the Russia people and it's pretty clear that we would be helping the Russia people if we, to the extent that our pressure is meaningful at all with the Russian government, it causes them to rethink their policy of repression against the media and against lawyers like Magnitsky who are just trying to help people and do right," Kyl said. "It has to be part of the trade legislation."

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), the main sponsor of the Magnitsky bill, did not meet with the Russian delegation.  He said he was not even aware they were in town.

But Cardin told The Cable that he rejects the Russian senators' claims that there should be no human rights sanctions on those Russian officials who were connected to the Magnitsky case.

"I think Russia should take care of these human rights violators and hold them accountable," Cardin said. "They said they would do it. It's been over two years. They should take care of their own business."

At the press conference, the Russian senators claimed they had convinced those U.S. senators they met to alter their stance and consider the possibility of separating the Mangitsky bill from the PNTR legislation. A McCain spokesman told The Cable that's just not the case.

"He gave them a fair hearing and will consider what they had to say, but it will be a cold day in Gila Bend, Arizona, before he changes his position on this," the McCain spokesman said.

Josh Rogin/Foreign Policy

The Cable

GAO: Foreign Service suffering from midlevel staffing shortages

The State Department has gaps in its embassy staffs all over the world, despite several years of hiring increases, according to a new report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

State "faces persistent experience gaps in overseas Foreign Service positions, particularly at the midlevels, and these gaps have not diminished since 2008," the GAO found in a report to be released Monday, obtained in advance by The Cable.

The State Department increased its hiring of foreign service officers (FSOs) by 17 percent in fiscal 2009 and 2010, but those new FSOs as yet don't have the experience to fill the midlevel openings in diplomatic posts throughout the world. Currently, about 28 percent of midlevel overseas positions are either vacant or filled by under-qualified officers, the GAO found. That percentage is the same as it was in 2008.

The State Department says the staffing shortages are due to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's plan to increase the overall size of the foreign service ranks by 25 percent, an effort called Diplomacy 3.0, but the GAO says even that plan is not set to meet targets due to the budget realities.

The GAO wants State to update its five-year plan to come up with a way to fill the midlevel FSO staffing shortfalls and State said it agreed with that recommendation.

"State acknowledges the need to close midlevel Foreign Service gaps, but it has not developed a strategy to help ensure that the department is taking full advantage of available human capital flexibilities and evaluating the success of its efforts to address these gaps," the report stated.

The largest staffing gaps are in hardship posts and for consular and office management specialist positions, the GAO found.

The report was requested by Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-HI) the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management.

"The State Department continues to struggle with staffing, experience, and foreign language gaps, which undermine our diplomatic readiness. State must continue to develop effective workforce strategies and address staffing gaps to effectively respond to quickly evolving diplomatic challenges," Akaka said in a statement. "I commend State for their ongoing efforts to address these staffing shortages. I urge the Department to implement GAO's recommendation."