By Alexandra Halsey-Storch
Impunity Watch Reporter, Europe
MOSCOW, Russia–The Obama Administration is seeking to repeal a 1974 law, called the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which currently restricts “normal trading relations with communist countries” and also permits mass emigration from the Soviet Union, despite having helped thousands of people escape the Kremlin’s repression, join their relatives abroad, or to leave behind inhuman living conditions.
The United States Chamber of Commerce has called the repeal its “top priority” for this year claiming that, when Russia joins the World Trade Organization, the country will be opened to a world of international trade. Continuing to prohibit the United States to trade with Russia could put American companies at a competitive disadvantage.
On the other hand, the law has had little “practical effect since 1994,” because the United States generally “waives” its application. Even still, lawmakers who are critical of Russia’s human rights record have resisted repeal and politicians in Washington D.C., Democrats and Republicans alike (including Sen. John McCain), have sought to enact a separate law—which they named the Magnitsky Act. The proposed law would put travel bans and freeze assets on Russian’s suspected of human rights violations, namely those who contributed to the death of Russian tax attorney Sergei Magnitsky.
The Bill’s latest endorser, Republican Senator Dick Lugar stated during a Press Release on March 27, 2012 that, “this bill has been pending before the Foreign Relations Committee for nearly a year, and we held a hearing on the bill last December. My office has worked with Senator Cardin’s staff to develop a revised version of the bill, which I strongly support. Therefore, I would look forward to the opportunity for the Committee to consider this legislation at the next business meeting.”
Unfortunately, the Obama administration does not like the proposed law because it threatens United States/Kremlin relations—a bond which the President has worked hard to repair. Moreover, the Kremlin dislike the proposed law because it exposes—on an international level—Putin’s criminal regime.
Despite the important relation that the President has built with Russia, the Magnitsky Act calls for the rehabilitation of human rights in Russia and would require the United States to settle for nothing less. The law is named for Magnitsky, the Russian tax attorney, who suffered inhumane treatment at the hands of Russian authorities as a byproduct of a political brawl. The circumstances surrounding Magnitsky’s death have been vague and elusive from the beginning, though this much is clear: Magnitsky testified against the Russian Interior Ministry (a governmental agency responsible for policing, national security and investigation economic crimes, like tax invasion), stating that they used his employer, Hermitage Capital, to embezzle $230 million from the Russian treasury by filing false corporate tax returns. After testifying against the Interior Ministry, Magnitsky was detained beginning in 2008 “on suspicion of helping Hermitage Capital evade $17.4 million dollars in taxes.”
A year after being detained, Magnitsky died. As the Wall Street Journal describes, prisoners in Russia are kept in “freezing and overcrowded cells, grotesque sanitation, and larvae-infested food.” Government officials iterated that Magnitsky’s death came as a result of heart disease and active hepatitis. Appropriate medical care would have allowed for the diagnosis and treatment of the diseases before he become fatally ill; nevertheless, on the day of his death he received no such medical treatment.
Magnitsky’s death has sparked incredible outrage throughout the world. In fact, on Russia’s “Google” equivalent—Yandex.ru—there are 19,000 articles on Magnitsky. According to Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens, this signifies that “middle-class Russians, whom Magnitsky typified, finally realize they are no longer immune to the everyday official thuggery routinely meted to Russians outside the privileged belts of Moscow and St. Petersburg.”
Despite the international outrage, and the growing concern that Russia continues to violate their citizen’s basic human rights, the Obama Administration has been slow to speak out against Magnitsky’s death; however, historian Alexander Goldfarb said, as quoted in The Moscow Times, that “when Russian citizen’s are once again compelled to go out onto the square and defend their rights, keeping the Jackson-Vanik Amendment is the best way the United States can support them.” Perhaps one day, so will the Magnitsky Act.
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Wall Street Journal–Russia’s Steve Biko–27 March 2012