A Measure of Justice for Magnitsky’s Murder, at Long Last

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The road to a measure of justice for Sergei Magnitsky — the anti-corruption lawyer who died after being tortured in a Russian prison three years ago — was a long one. After two years, Congress has finally passed the Russia and Moldova Jackson-Vanik Repeal Act of 2012 (H.R. 6156). It passed in the Senate last week by a vote of 92-4 and in the House several weeks ago by an overwhelming bipartisan majority of 365 to 43.

For the first time on record, a key part of the legislation, a section known as the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012, will require the U.S. government to create a public list of those who have been denied entry to the United States or whose assets have been frozen because they have committed gross human-rights violations — including those responsible for Magnitsky’s imprisonment, torture and murder. No other sanctions have required the executive branch to publicly name and shame individuals in this way.

The bill faced several hurdles along the way to its passage, the most significant of which was a debate over whether the bill should apply to Russian human-rights abusers only or to human-rights abusers everywhere in the world. Joined by Sens. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) — who initially brought Magnitsky’s case to the attention of Congress in 2010, after he released a list of 60 corrupt officials allegedly involved in Magnitsky’s murder — was one of the leading proponents for a bill that was global in scope, because, as he laudably argued, human-rights abusers should be punished everywhere.

Those on the opposing side of a bill that was global in scope were primarily the Obama administration, House Republicans and leaders of the business community. Some opposed it merely on prudential grounds, arguing that bicameral consensus for a global approach would have taken more time than the lame-duck session could allow. Others opposed it ostensibly for cost-scoring reasons. 

The probable reason for most opposition, however — including that of the Obama administration and the business community — was that its passage would have inspired international hostility to the United States. After being convinced that making the bill global in scope would have alienated key supporters of the bill and required more time than the lame-duck session would have allowed, Cardin, Kyl and Levin agreed not to amend it. In a press release just before the Senate vote on the bill, Cardin said: “This bill may only apply to Russia, but it sets a standard that should be applied globally ... I will continue to work with my bipartisan cosponsors towards passage of the Magnitsky sanctions for other countries.”

Although the bill wasn’t amended to be global, by passing the Magnisky Act, the United States has now taken a clear stand on the side of the Russian people — including those like Magnitsky, who died standing up for the rule of law in the midst of a lawless system — and against those who abuse human rights. The new law will help pave a brighter future for a country that is “choking on corruption, illegality and abuse,” as the Brookings Institution’s Robert Kagan and Freedom House’s David Kramer have written, and that fails to punish officials who kill their own citizens and invest billions of untaxed dollars abroad. 

The Russian people deserve a free and transparent system in which government officials are held fully accountable. They deserve an end to the corruption that has “destroyed or degraded the lives of so many,” as one congressional aide responsible for drafting the bill said. Indeed, a system that truly respects human rights and the impartial rule of law is in Russia’s national interest, because it will attract the foreign investment that Russia needs to grow and to diversify its economy. In addition to sanctioning human-rights abusers, the new law will also boost Russian trade by granting Russia, now a World Trade Organization member, permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) status with the United States.

With the Magnitsky Act, the United States not only honors the slain tax lawyer’s sacrifice, but also sets a powerful example for other countries to follow in naming and shaming human-rights abusers. Indeed, the European Union, Sweden, the Netherlands, Canada and the United Kingdom are all considering taking similar action. Here at home, the Magnitsky Act will also open up possibilities for further legislation sanctioning other human-rights abusers. Although the new law is not global in scope, the fight for “the many who remain voiceless under despots,” as Kyl said on the Senate floor last week, will and should continue.

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