MOSCOW (Reuters) - Moscow expressed outrage on Wednesday over a U.S. Senate panel’s approval of a bill that would penalize Russian officials for human rights abuses, and warned Washington that adoption of the sanctions would force Russia to respond in kind.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed the “Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act,” named after a Russian anti-corruption lawyer whose death in 2009 while in pre-trial detention drew widespread condemnation.
Despite broad support in Congress, the bill’s future remains uncertain, partly because the Obama administration is unenthusiastic about a measure that Russia says would be an unwarranted intrusion into its internal affairs.
“The effect on our relations will be extremely negative,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was quoted by state news agency Itar-Tass as saying.
“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.”
Ryabkov said adoption of the bill could undo improved ties between Moscow and Washington, part of a policy initiative by President Barack Obama to “reset” relations that were strained under his predecessor George W. Bush.
“It appears American lawmakers want to break the positive trend in our relationship with such serious irritants,” Ryabkov told Vesti-24 state television.
“There is still time for the initiators of the Magnitsky law to again weigh the situation and ponder the consequences.”
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton downplayed the risk to relations with Moscow.
“We made it very clear that we do have concerns about human rights in Russia, and we have concerns in particular about this (Magnitsky) case,” Clinton told reporters in Helsinki.
“We think there is a way of expressing those concerns without derailing the relationship and that is what we are working with our Congress to do and we have every reason to believe we can accomplish that.”
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 deny visas and freeze the assets of Russians suspected of involvement in his death.
Ryabkov reiterated Russia’s threat to retaliate with “tough measures” 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.
Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the Russian parliament’s upper chamber’s international relations committee, said a delegation of Russian lawmakers planned to travel to Washington to discuss the bill with their U.S. counterparts.
“The U.S. political establishment still has a chance to turn around the situation if they do not support the bill at the plenary sessions of the House of Representatives and the Senate,” Margelov told RIA news agency.
Mikhail Kasyanov, a prime minister during Putin’s first term who is now an opposition activist, said Moscow was over-reacting.
“All those harsh reactions, that is some kind of Soviet-style reaction, not understanding how nations interact in the 21st century,” Kasyanov said at a forum on the Magnitsky legislation in Washington.
“That’s why just, I’m a little bit disappointed that the government of my country behaves so unresponsibly and inappropriately,” he said, speaking in English.
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 not disclosed their names. (Additional reporting by Gleb Bryanski and by Ritsuko Ando and Eero Vassinen in Helsinki and Susan Cornwell in Washington; Writing by Alissa de Carbonnel; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)