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US Senate approves 'Magnitsky Act', ties it to Cold War era trade law's repeal

Published time: December 06, 2012 17:36
Edited time: December 15, 2012 01:48

The United States Senate, Washington, DC (RIA Novosti / Eduard Pesov)

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The US Senate has passed a new bill normalizing trading relations with the Russian Federation, while at the same time critisizing its former adversary's human rights record.

In response, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia would take similar, reciprocative actions.

“During a meeting with Hillary Clinton in Dublin, I confirmed that we will close entry to Americans who have been guilty of human rights violations,” Lavrov said.

The act automatically repeals the Jackson-Vanik amendment placing trade restrictions on Russia and establishes permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) with Moscow. The Jackson-Vanik amendment was enacted in 1974 during the Cold War and originally targeted the Soviet Union.

"By enacting PNTR together with the Magnitsky Act, we are replacing Jackson-Vanik with legislation that addresses the corruption and accountability issues that Russia confronts today," Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus said on the eve of the vote.

The bill was approved by the House last month. After the Senate's 92-4 vote vote it is en route to President Barack Obama for an executive signature.

The act, while finally normalizing trade relations with Moscow, will allow Washington to deny visas as well as freeze the assets of Russian officials allegedly involved in the death of the Russian lawyer, Sergey Magnitsky. The bill also stipulates that future possible violations in the field of human rights would be prosecuted by the same measures.

Welcoming better trade relations, Russia has condemned the controversial Magnitsky Act incorporated into the bill. The country’s Foreign Ministry has dubbed the law's approval “theatre of absurd.

We do not wish to give up the positive side of the relations we have laboriously built over the last two years,” a statement on the ministry's website read following the vote. “But they should understand that the Senate's approval of the provision will have quite a negative impact on our cooperation perspectives. The US surely takes sole and utter responsibility for that.

Previous week, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev warned that approval of the Magnitsky Act would trigger both a "symmetrical and asymmetrical reaction" from his country. "We absolutely dislike" its link to the trade bill, he said. "It's inadmissible when one country tries to dictate its will to another."

US Senate voting
US Senate voting

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Magnitsky case

The Magnitsky case began in 2007, when British investment fund Hermitage Capital, one of the biggest foreign investors inside Russia, fell victim to a US$230 million fraud scheme. The fund hired corporate lawyer Sergey Magnitsky, whose investigation brought forth names of officials in Russia’s Interior Ministry he believed to be involved in the scam.

Soon after that, the lawyer was arrested on charges of assisting Hermitage Capital to evade tax and was put into a detention facility. Spending a year there, Magnitsky suddenly died in November 2009. An inquiry into his death proved he had been denied crucial medical treatment. His supporters allege the lawyer had been tortured in an attempt to get him to withdraw his accusations.

Investigation both into the lawyer's death and tax evasion charges continues.

­Part and Parcel

­As Obama faces new pressure, Senate has practically ensured the executive's signature by combining both into one document, Aleksey Pushkov, the head of the Duma International Affairs Committee, told RT.

"In order to make it impossible for President Obama to refuse to sign the Magnitsky Act, the lawmakers have presented it to him in the same package as the annulment for the Jackson-Vanik amendment,” Pushkov said. “This way Obama is being tricked to signing both as he fully understands that approving the Magnitsky Act could potentially damage ties with Russia."

If the Magnitsky Act and the abolition of the Jackson-Vanik amendment were to be handed to the president separately, he could then approve the amendment but not sign the act, Pushkov explained.

“On the one hand, Obama is being pressured by an anti-Russian lobby in the US Congress. On the other hand, the pressure comes from the American industrial and trade lobby, which is extremely  interested in the abolition of the Jackson-Vanik amendment and improve its position in the Russian market, in light of its WTO ascension. That's why these two different-in-meaning documents are being presented as one.”

­The reason for the Magnitsky Act is Russia's tendency to point out the American government's hypocrisy, believes commentator and journalist Don DeBar.

“The Russian Foreign Ministry should respond to such an obvious insult, where the United States, probably the primary violator of human rights at this point in terms of scale, magnitude and depth, is pointing its finger at anyone,” DeBar told RT. “Certainly a person who is having that finger in their face should reply – point out, ‘you have no standing to accuse us of anything,’ and stand up for themselves.”

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