Senator seeks visa sanctions in Russia case

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A senator on Monday asked Washington to cancel visa privileges for 60 Russian officials and others over the death in jail last year of a lawyer for what was once Russia’s top equity fund, Hermitage.

Senator Benjamin Cardin, a Maryland Democrat who chairs the human rights monitoring Helsinki Commission, asked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to scrap visa privileges for those accused of ties to the death of Sergei Magnitsky.

Human rights activists have said Russian authorities subjected Magnitsky to conditions amounting to torture in a failed bid to force him to testify in their favor in a battle with Hermitage over tax fraud allegations.

“While there are many aspects of this case which are impossible to pursue here in the United States, one step we can take, however, is to deny the individuals involved in this crime and their immediate family members the privilege of visiting our country,” Cardin said in a letter to Clinton made public on Monday.

“The United States has a clear policy of denying entry to individuals involved in corruption, and it is imperative that the U.S. Department of State act promptly on this matter.”

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the department had received Cardin’s letter on Friday and was reviewing his recommendations.

The Commission, an independent government agency set up in 1976 to monitor compliance with the Helsinki Accords, said Magnitsky’s colleagues and his attorneys had submitted a list of individuals they allege were involved in the case.

It includes senior officials from the Russian Interior Ministry, its Federal Security Service, Federal Tax Service, as well as officials from the courts, prosecutor’s office and prison service.

Magnitsky’s death in November 2009 spooked investors and set up a new test for President Dmitry Medvedev’s promise to reform Russia’s corruption-tainted justice system.

In October 2008, Magnitsky implicated two Interior Ministry officers in an alleged $230 million fraud involving the illegal seizure of Hermitage’s Russian investment holding companies to set up fake tax refunds.

Magnitsky was arrested weeks later and accused of involvement in alleged tax fraud by Hermitage. The arrest was carried out by three subordinates of Artyom Kuznetsov, one of the officers Magnitsky had implicated.

The rights activists said Magnitsky was subjected to “systematic torture” and denied medical help in jail in hopes of prompting him to withdraw his testimony and to implicate himself and Bill Browder, the CEO of Hermitage Capital Management.

Prosecutors said Magnitsky’s death in a Moscow prison was due to heart failure.

Medvedev nevertheless fired several prison officials after Magnitsky’s death and later signed a law stipulating that tax evasion suspects should not be jailed.

Hermitage was once the largest portfolio investor in Russia, but Browder fell out with the authorities. He was refused entry to Russia in 2005 on national security grounds, and Hermitage disposed of its Russian holdings.

reporting by Andrew Quinn; editing by Paul Simao