MOSCOW (Reuters) - Moscow expressed outrage on Wednesday over the Senate’s approval of a bill that would penalize Russian officials for human rights abuses, and warned Americans that adoption of the sanctions would strain U.S.-Russian relations.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed the “Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act,” named after an anti-corruption lawyer whose death in jail in 2009 while in pre-trial detention has drawn widespread condemnation.
Despite broad support in Congress, the bill’s future remains uncertain, partly because U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration is unenthusiastic about a measure that Russia says would be an unwarranted intrusion into its internal affairs.
“We are not only deeply sorry but outraged that - despite common sense and all signals Moscow has sent and keeps sending about the counterproductive nature of such steps - work on the ‘Magnitsky law’ continues,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was quoted by state news agency Itar-Tass as saying.
Implementation of the bill would be extremely negative for U.S.-Russia relations, Ryabkov said.
The death in police custody of Magnitsky, a 37-year-old equity fund lawyer for Hermitage Capital in Moscow, scared investors and blackened Russia’s image abroad. The Kremlin’s own human rights council says he was probably beaten to death.
The bill would require the United States to deny visas to, and freeze the assets of, Russians suspected of being involved in his death.
Ryabkov reiterated Russia’s threat to retaliate if the bill is passed, in part by passing a tit-for-tat measure denying entry to U.S. citizens it believes are linked to human rights violations.
“There will be a response,” Ryabkov said. “There will be a symmetrical response, but there will also be a number of additional measures.”
President Vladimir Putin this month called Magnitsky’s death a tragedy, but said Moscow would retaliate if the Magnitsky bill were passed.
Magnitsky was jailed in Russia in 2008 and was awaiting trial on charges of tax evasion and fraud. His colleagues say the charges were fabricated by police investigators whom he had accused of stealing $230 million from the state through fraudulent tax returns.
Obama’s administration says it understands concerns over rights abuses but that the bill is redundant as Washington has already imposed visa restrictions on some Russians thought to have been involved in Magnitsky’s death. However, it has kept their names quiet.
Reporting By Nastassia Astrasheuskaya; Editing by Alissa de Carbonnel and Tim Pearce