More than four years ago, a Russian attorney named Sergei Magnitsky selflessly exposed a brazen plot by senior Russian officials to embezzle some $230 million and was subsequently jailed on fabricated charges. As confirmed by the Russian Presidential Council on Human Rights, Magnitsky was mercilessly beaten and denied medical care while imprisoned over the next year, eventually dying in police custody of untreated pancreatic disease.
That’s why, on December 6, the Senate passed the so-called Magnitsky bill, legislation designed to hold Russian officials like these to account when they blatantly and systematically abuse human rights and the rule of law.
Although the bill takes action against Sergei’s murderers and other human-rights violators in Russia, it will not apply to those who perpetrate similar abuses in other countries. While I would have preferred that this legislation deal more broadly with human-rights abusers around the world, this is nevertheless a step in the right direction. It is my hope that the Magnitsky bill will serve as an example for future endeavors against those who violate the natural rights of citizens all over the world. As Senator Cardin put it, the legislation we passed will help “set a standard that should be applied globally,” and that’s an important step forward in the battle against international human-rights abuse.
Indeed, once President Obama signs this bill, our government will have the power to “name and shame” Russian human-rights violators. And, beyond just giving these thugs a moral bludgeoning, they can also be barred from receiving visas and American officials will even have the power to freeze their U.S.-based financial assets.
This legislation is especially important in light of the events that have taken place since the re-election of President Vladimir Putin in May. Since taking office, Putin has cracked down on the Russian people’s growing discontent with his authoritarian policies and widespread corruption. In fact, a string of new laws have recently been enacted that restrict the rights to speech, assembly, and expression. As evidence of this, recall the band of punk rockers who received excessively harsh prison sentences after criticizing Mr. Putin earlier this year. The sanctions that would result from the Magnitsky bill will hopefully help blunt the fear and intimidation experienced by those who threaten the Kremlin.
The bill’s passage will also eliminate outdated Cold-War era trade restrictions and ensure that U.S. companies will receive the full benefits of Russia’s recent entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) – benefits that Russia would be able to deny us otherwise. It will also allow our government to use the WTO dispute-settlement system to challenge Russia should it try to treat U.S. companies unfairly.
Overall, this bill is a victory for the voiceless suffering from despots, autocrats, and strongmen, and it is also a win for American consumers and businesses who will benefit from Russia’s entry into the global economy. That said, after I leave the Senate at the beginning of the year, I remain hopeful that other senators will expand and build upon this victory; that they will use the Magnitsky bill as a model for legislation that can hold those who ignore human-rights and the rule-of-law across the globe.