Next week, the State Department is expected to release a list of Russian human rights violators who could be subject to visa bans and asset freezes in the United States, but Congress is worried that State will avoid naming senior Russian officials in an effort to placate the Kremlin.
The list is required to be sent to Congress by April 13, according to the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012, which was passed by both chambers of Congress and signed by President Barack Obama last December. Lawmakers and NGOs working on the Magnitsky list want the State Department to include top Russian officials and several close associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The State Department is using a narrow interpretation of the law, arguing that a higher standard of evidence is required for legal reasons. But some lawmakers involved in the issue believe the narrower scope is meant to placate Moscow.
"We want to ensure that the administration carries out the law in the same spirit that Congress passed it. We didn't do this for a press release; we did this because of the deteriorating human rights situation in Russia," said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), an original sponsor of the bill, in an interview.
McGovern sent the administration his own list of 280 Russian officials (PDF) he believes should be included in the State Department's Magnitsky list. Many of them are directly related to the case of Magnitsky, the anti-corruption lawyer who died in Russian prison after allegedly being tortured, and some are close personal associates of Putin.
Yuri Chaika, the general prosecutor of Russia in Moscow, was included on McGovern's list, as was Victor Voronin, the head of economic counterespionage department of the FSB who was reportedly heavily involved in overseeing the Magnitsky case. Chaika and Vororin are both close associates of Putin, and Voronin's ties to the Russian leader date back to their time together at the St. Petersburg branch of the FSB.
McGovern also names Alexander Bastrykin, the head of the Russian Investigative Committee and college friend of Putin, Victor Grin, deputy general prosecutor under Chaika, Olga Yegorova, the head of the Moscow City Court, and dozens of other officials associated with the case -- all the way down to the paramedics and nurses in the prison where Magnitsky died.
Several NGOs have also submitted their own lists to the State Department with other names of senior Russian officials not involved in the Magnitsky case. For example, one list obtained by The Cable submitted by an American NGO named Mikhail Lesin, former Russian information minister, who has been sued in the European Court of Human Rights for various acts of intimidation against Russian media figures. Lesin is also the founder of Russia Today, the government-sponsored news network.
NGOs also want to see on the list Ramzan Kadyrov, the appointed governor of Chechnya, who the State Department itself has reported is responsible for a long list of human rights violations, including the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, an American citizen, in 2006.
McGovern is not the only congressman concerned about how the State Department is forming the list. His concerns are shared by key sponsors Sens. Ben Cardin (D-MD) and John McCain (R-AZ), several congressional aides said, although those senators are waiting until the list is released before criticizing the administration publicly.
McGovern is not waiting, however, and wrote a letter March 26 urging Obama to create the list using a broad standard: a violator should be named where there is credible information that he or she had engaged in any of the activities outlined in the law as human rights violations.
The administration will only place Russian officials on the list if those officials meet the more stringent standard used by the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) to justify asset freezes, as defined in the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA), a State Department official told The Cable.
"OFAC has to develop a legally supportable case about everyone who is on the list," the official said. "OFAC standards demand a case of evidence that can withstand challenge because they will be challenged."
The official also said that the list to be released next week can be updated each year and should not be seen as the final list.
McGovern told The Cable that the whole point of the list is to name and shame Russian human rights violators and that asset freezes are only the final step in the process to be applied to certain members of the list. By using the Treasury Department's narrower standard, the State Department could be gutting the power of the legislation, he says.
"The administration knows exactly what the intent of Congress was when they passed this bill. They are going to take the most limited interpretation and find ways not to put anybody on the list. If that's the course they want to take, they are going to receive some bipartisan pushback," he said.
The Obama administration resisted the law throughout its path through Congress and negotiated several changes meant to soften what it expects will be severe Russian retaliation, McGovern said, and is now trying to appease the Russian government by releasing a small list.
"I understand the political difficulty the administration might face, but if the administration were to take a limited view of the Magnitsky bill, it would be a wink and a nod to the hardliners in Russia that they won."