WASHINGTON A U.S. Senate panel on Tuesday unanimously approved a bill that would penalize Russian officials for human rights abuses, a measure with broad support in Congress that Russia protests would be an unwarranted intrusion into its internal affairs.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed the "Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act," named after an anti-corruption lawyer who died in 2009 after a year in Russian jails. It is sponsored by Democratic Senator Ben Cardin.
The bill would require the United States to deny visas and freeze the assets of Russians linked to Magnitsky's death, as well as those of other human rights abusers in Russia or anywhere in the world.
A similar measure was passed by a House of Representatives committee earlier this month, but it limits the sanctions to Russia. It has yet to come to a vote in the full House.
Despite bipartisan support in Congress, the measure's future prospects remain uncertain, in part because the Obama administration is unenthusiastic about it.
The administration's position has prompted some Magnitsky bill supporters to threaten not to vote for a White House priority this year - permanent normal trade relations with Russia - unless this bill is attached.
Democratic Senator Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has promised to add the Magnitsky measure to the legislation on trade relations with Russia when his panel votes on the trade bill later this summer.
The death in police custody of Magnitsky, a Russian who worked for the equity fund Hermitage Capital in Moscow, spooked investors and blackened Russia's image abroad. The Kremlin's own human rights council says he was probably beaten to death.
Russian President Vladimir Putin this month called the death a tragedy, but said Moscow would retaliate if the Magnitsky bill is passed. "If there will be restrictions on entry to (the) U.S. for some Russian citizens, then there will be restrictions for entry to Russia for some Americans," Putin said.
Magnitsky was jailed in Russia in 2008 on charges of tax evasion and fraud. His colleagues say those were fabricated by police investigators whom he had accused of stealing $230 million from the state through fraudulent tax returns.
The administration of President Barack Obama says it understands the concerns about rights abuses, but that the bill is unnecessary as the administration has already imposed visa restrictions on some Russians thought to have been involved in Magnitsky's death. However, it has kept their names quiet.
Cardin says the rights abusers should be "named and shamed."
"Our principal purpose is not only to bring justice to Sergei Magnitsky ... but to have a legacy of advancing international rights so that those who are involved in gross human rights violations should not have the privilege to visit our country or use our banking system," Cardin said.
Cardin changed his proposal this month to let administration officials keep secret some names on the list of abusers if they deemed it in the interests of national security.
But in an amendment by Cardin that the committee approved on Tuesday, the administration would be required to submit detailed justifications to Congress for any names kept secret.
The only senator to vote against requiring the detailed justifications was Senator John Kerry, chairman of the committee and a Democrat who is close to the Obama administration.
He said he was worried about the submission of detailed classified information to Congress when there have been so many recent leaks of national security material. Kerry said he would work with Cardin to address other concerns about the bill, but refused to detail these to reporters.
Cardin first asked the administration in April 2010 to impose sanctions on about 60 Russians he said were implicated in Magnitsky's death and the corruption he exposed. Cardin proposed his bill later that year along with U.S. Representative Jim McGovern, also a Democrat.
The 60 names included senior officials from the Russian Interior Ministry as well as the tax service, prosecutor's office and prison service.
William Browder, CEO of Hermitage Capital, said the State Department should be asked whether it would put those 60 people on a secret or public list should the bill become law.
"If they don't answer the question, it means they are not acting in good faith, and it would be their intention to classify all the names," Browder told Reuters.
Republican Senator John McCain called on Obama to apply sanctions against an organized crime group in Russia that he said was connected to Magnitsky's death and the corruption Magnitsky had exposed.
McCain said Obama could take this action against the "Klyuev" group under an order the president signed last year that allows the U.S. government to use the same tools against organized crime that it uses against terrorist groups.
This would mean the group's assets in the United States would be frozen and no U.S. citizen could do business with them. But McCain, a co-sponsor of the Magnitsky bill, said Congress should still pass it as well.
(Additional reporting by Lauren French; Editing by Will Dunham)