Senate's "Magnitsky" bill could keep names secret

WASHINGTON Mon Jun 18, 2012 10:50pm EDT

Friends and relatives take part in the funeral ceremony of Sergei Magnitsky at a cemetery in Moscow November 20, 2009. REUTERS/Mikhail Voskresensky

Friends and relatives take part in the funeral ceremony of Sergei Magnitsky at a cemetery in Moscow November 20, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Mikhail Voskresensky

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A draft proposal to penalize Russian officials for human rights abuses has been rewritten in the Senate to let the U.S. government keep secret some names on the list of abusers, congressional aides said on Monday.

The reworked Senate version, which could still change, upset some supporters of the legislation to create what is known as the "Magnitsky list." They said that keeping part of the proposed list secret would neuter the effect of the bill, which is aimed at exposing human rights violators in Russia.

The House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee this month approved 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 would require the United States to deny visas and freeze the U.S. assets of Russians linked to Magnitsky's death. The bill as originally written in both the House and Senate would make public the list of offenders and broaden it to include other abusers of human rights in Russia.

A reworked draft circulating in the Senate and obtained by Reuters would allow the list to "contain a classified annex if the Secretary (of State) determines that it is necessary for the national security interests of the United States to do so."

William Browder, CEO of Hermitage Capital, told Reuters he suspected the "classified annex" provision had been inserted at the request of the Obama administration to water down the bill and so avoid offending the Russian government, which opposes the measure.

"The administration is trying to gut the bill, because they've been against it from the start. They are trying to make nice with the Russians," Browder said in a phone conversation from London.

The administration of President Barack Obama argues the bill is unnecessary because the administration has already imposed visa restrictions on some Russians believed to have been involved in Magnitsky's death. But it has kept their names quiet.

Backers of the Magnitsky bill want the list of human rights violators made public both to shame those on the list and to keep them from doing business with U.S. financial institutions.

The White House is also anxious to keep the push for sanctions on human rights abusers in Russia from slowing down efforts to get congressional approval allowing "permanent normal trade relations" with Russia this year.

Senator Ben Cardin, a Democrat, is the main sponsor of the Magnitsky bill in the Senate, but there was no comment from his office on the draft bill on Monday. The legislation was scheduled to have a vote on Tuesday in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

However, Senate aides said at least one member of the committee may request on Tuesday that the vote be postponed until the committee's next business meeting, but no date for that has been set.

A Senate Republican aide said there is concern that having part of the list be classified would make steps like the asset freeze unenforceable.

"How can an individual's assets be frozen, if his or her name cannot be disclosed to financial institutions?" the aide asked. Republicans would try to amend the bill to at least require a justification to Congress for each person put on the classified list, the aide said.

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 that he was probably beaten to death.

(Reporting By Susan Cornwell; Editing by Eric Walsh)

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