House panel backs "Magnitsky" sanctions on Russia
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A congressional committee unanimously approved on Thursday a measure to penalize Russian officials for human rights abuses, adding to tensions with Moscow and complicating White House efforts to pass Russian trade legislation in the coming months.
The House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee approved on a voice vote the "Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act," named for a 37-year-old anti-corruption lawyer who worked for the equity fund Hermitage Capital. His 2009 death after a year in Russian jails spooked investors and blackened Russia's image abroad.
The measure has bipartisan support among lawmakers but its prospects for passage in Congress remain uncertain.
The measure would require the United States to deny visas and freeze the assets of Russians linked to Magnitsky's death. The Obama administration already has imposed visa restrictions on some Russians believed to have been involved in Magnitsky's death, but kept their names quiet.
The bill would make public the list of alleged offenders, broaden it to include other abusers of human rights in Russia and prohibit them from doing their banking in U.S. institutions.
Russian officials have warned that the bill would harm American-Russian relations, and U.S. business groups say it could hurt their interests in Russia.
The White House worries the bill will get embroiled in President Barack Obama's efforts to reap the trade benefits of Russia's looming entry into the World Trade Organization, a key achievement of the "reset" in U.S.-Russia ties of recent years.
Approval by the panel was just the first step in advancing the Magnitsky bill by Democratic Representative Jim McGovern through the Republican-controlled House. Before it can get a vote of the full House, two more committees must approve it or waive jurisdiction. The Democratic-controlled Senate has not acted on a similar bill by Senator Ben Cardin, a Democrat.
'RISKING THEIR LIVES'
The committee's vote sends a message to the Kremlin "that they cannot threaten us into silence, they cannot forever suppress the evidence of their crimes, they cannot make the world abandon those brave individuals who are risking their lives to exercise their basic human rights," said Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Republican head of the House panel.
Magnitsky was jailed in 2008 on charges of tax evasion and fraud. His colleagues say these were fabricated by police investigators whom he had accused of stealing $230 million from the state through fraudulent tax returns. The Kremlin's own human rights council said in 2011 he was probably beaten to death.
The House panel's move is likely to be the opening salvo in a congressional debate over trade relations with Russia this year. Some lawmakers want to attach the Magnitsky bill to a trade bill establishing permanent normal trading relations with Russia, thereby preserving a link between trade and human rights dating back to a 1974 provision called the Jackson-Vanik amendment.
"If we were to consider such changes to our trade law, it should be done in conjunction with legislation to address serious human rights violations in Russia," said Representative Howard Berman, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
He said he favors extending the Magnitsky bill to cover human rights abuses in other countries besides Russia.
In Moscow, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said the U.S. government aimed to prevent the Magnitsky legislation from blocking the shift to normal trade relations once Russia joins the World Trade Organization in August. "Our preference is for ... a clean (trade) bill that deals only with our ability to maintain our competitiveness," Kirk said.
Constantin Dolgov, the Russian Foreign Ministry's representative on human rights, told Russian news wire Interfax the measure passed by the House panel was "counterproductive" and would be considered "nearly interference in internal affairs, which would be a negative development."
U.S. business groups fear the Magnitsky legislation will further inflame already fractious relations and jeopardize export sales they expect to make after Russia joins the WTO. Russia is the largest economy still outside the organization.
If Congress does not remove Russia from Jackson-Vanik, Moscow could under WTO rules potentially deny U.S. exporters some of the market-opening concessions it made to join the WTO.
Russian political analyst Dmitry Trenin said despite Russia's criticism of the legislation, its effect on Russian-American ties would be limited. "It may spoil the atmosphere a bit, but on the whole I do not see a threat to the relationship," said Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center.
(Additional reporting by Jason Bush and Steve Gutterman in Moscow; Editing by Will Dunham)
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