U.S. lawmakers seek to broaden scope of human rights act from Russia to world

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Two senior U.S. lawmakers introduced legislation on Thursday that would expand to all countries the “Magnitsky” act passed in late 2012 to penalize Russia for alleged human rights abuses.

Maryland Democratic Senator-elect Ben Cardin speaks at a news conference with Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) in Baltimore, Maryland November 8, 2006. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Democratic Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland, who championed the original law, and Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona said their “Global Human Rights Accountability Act” would ensure human rights abusers from anywhere in the world are denied entry to the United States and barred from using U.S. financial institutions.

“This is a major human rights initiative,” Cardin told Reuters in a telephone interview. “What it does is really put a spotlight on human rights violators,” he said.

The Magnitsky Act was named for Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian whistleblower lawyer who died in his jail cell in 2009. Under the act, the White House designated a list of human rights abusers tied to Magnitsky’s death who are subject to visa bans and asset freezes in the United States.

Moscow considers the Magnitsky Act outside interference in its affairs. The law has been a source of tension between Washington and Moscow even as the two governments work together on delicate issues such as Syria’s civil war and chemical weapons and efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear program.

Cardin had long pressed for it to be expanded to include human rights abusers from additional countries.

There are several steps before the measure can become law.

It must win approval in the Senate and pass the House of Representatives, which acted two years ago to restrict it to Russia, after the Senate supported the broader measure.

In the Senate, the new legislation has attracted co-sponsors from both parties, including Mississippi Republican Senator Roger Wicker and Illinois Senator Richard Durbin. Durbin is the No. 2 Senate Democrat.

Cardin said he believed there was broad bipartisan support for the measure and that the bill could become law.

“I think we have a reasonable chance,” he said.

In December, the U.S. State Department announced that it would not add any names to the list of 18 Russians accused of complicity in Magnitsky’s death, as part of the review required under the law.

Lawmakers said then the decision was a reversal from the administration’s hints for months that it was preparing allegations against more Russians.

Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Gunna Dickson and Dan Grebler