UPDATE 1-US Senate panel may vote on Russian rights bill

Tue Mar 27, 2012 9:31pm EDT

* Bill would deny visas to Russians linked to lawyer's death

* Magnitsky died in Russian jail in 2009

By Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON, March 27 (Reuters) - Human rights legislation named after an anti-graft lawyer who died in a Russian jail is likely to be considered by a U.S. Senate committee this spring, the panel's chairman Senator John Kerry said on Tuesday.

The Sergei Magnitsky bill would require the United States to deny visas and freeze the assets of Russians or others with links to his detention and death, as well as those who commit human rights violations against other whistle-blowers like him.

The 2009 death of the 37-year-old Magnitsky, who worked for equity fund Hermitage Capital and died after a year in Russian jails, spooked investors and tarnished Russia's image. The Kremlin human rights council says he was probably beaten to death.

Before his arrest, he had testified against Russian interior ministry officials during a tax evasion case against Hermitage.

Senator Benjamin Cardin introduced the Magnitsky bill in May of last year. A companion bill by Representative James McGovern, who like Cardin is a Democrat, was introduced in the House of Representatives.

But the Obama administration did not embrace the legislation, and no action has been taken in Congress. U.S. envoy to Russia Michael McFaul recently noted that the United States had already imposed visa restrictions on some Russian officials believed to be involved in Magnitsky's death. This made the Magnitsky bill "redundant," McFaul said.

"I'd like to try to put it (the bill) on a business meeting for when we return (from spring recess in mid-April), and we should aim to do it," Kerry said on Tuesday at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee meeting after the panel's ranking Republican, Richard Lugar, urged the committee to finally take up and vote on the legislation.

Cardin, who is also a member of the committee, said he was trying to work out differences with the Obama administration on the bill. Cardin thought the best opportunity for passing it would be in conjunction with legislation on trade relations with Russia that is expected to come before Congress in the coming months.

Russia's expected entry into the World Trade Organization requires Congress to vote to establish "permanent normal trade relations" with Russia by removing a Cold War-era human rights provision known as the Jackson-Vanik amendment that is inconsistent with WTO rules.

But trying to link the Magnitsky bill to the trade legislation could run into trouble from other Democrats. Senator Max Baucus, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, told Reuters on Tuesday that he was inclined to oppose adding the Magnitsky bill to the trade legislation.

Baucus' office said he has expressed a willingness to work with Cardin and find the best path forward for human rights legislation.