Russia on Edge
|Richard Solash||July 14th 2012|
Congressmen appear to be unmoved following the visit of a Russian delegation to Washington this week aimed at protesting pending U.S. sanctions over the death of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. Describing the Russian initiative as "too late," the congressmen said that they expected the legislation to be signed into law. The move would deny visas to dozens of Russian officials implicated in Magnitsky's death and also freeze their assets.
Senator Roger Wicker (Republican-Mississippi) is a member of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, where the Magnitsky legislation was first initiated. "The reports about this tragedy are not isolated," he said. "There have been two independent reports inside Russia that indicated this was a violation of Mr. Magnitsky's rights and an abusive process. "So it's going to be very difficult, I think, for one packet of information provided by a group of Russian [lawmakers] to overcome the huge body of information."
Wicker was one of several U.S. lawmakers who met with Aleksei Chernyshev, Vitaly Malkin, Aleksandr Savenkov, and Valery Shnyakin -- all members of Russia's upper house of parliament, the Federation Council. The delegation was in the U.S. capital to present the findings of a "preliminary parliamentary investigation" into the case of the deceased lawyer. In 2008, Magnitsky implicated top officials from Russia's Interior Ministry, Federal Tax Service, Federal Security Service, and other agencies in a $230 million scheme to defraud the Russian government. Two of the officials whom Magnitsky had implicated soon initiated proceedings against him on charges of assisting his client, investment firm Hermitage Capital, in evading taxes. Magnitsky was arrested and in late 2009, died after more than a year in pre-trial detention, during which he was repeatedly denied medical care and, according to an independent investigation, beaten.
The Russian government has charged just one low-level official in the case, which has since become an international symbol of Moscow's human rights and rule-of-law failings. U.S. bills that would sanction the Russian officials deemed responsible have passed key congressional hurdles, infuriating Moscow in the process. The new parliamentary findings claim that Magnitsky was indeed guilty of financial crimes and that his arrest was legal. The findings also cast doubt on the allegations of torture and of an official cover-up surrounding his death. In doing so, they contradict two independent investigations into the case conducted in Russia -- a December 2009 report by the Moscow Public Oversight Commission and a July 2011 report by then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's Human Rights Council.
Wicker stated that he brought up the contradictions in his meeting with the Russian delegation. "I do think [their visit] is a last ditch effort and I'm unpersuaded," the senator said. Wicker also said that in a later meeting with Senator John McCain (Republican-Arizona), the two lawmakers reaffirmed their support for sanctions. "If anyone has had a change of heart based on this visit, they haven't spoken to me about it, and I would be very surprised," he said. U.S. Representative Gregory Meeks (Democrat-New York), who also met with the Russians, indicated that he hoped the visit could lead to closer ties between the countries' lawmakers, but he also maintained that he expected Congress to stand behind sanctions: "I think it's late in the game now [for an investigation]," he said. "I think that what [the visit] can have an effect on is relationship-building, and as the co-chair of the [Congressional] Russian Caucus, I'm trying to find some positives. I think that's a very positive thing that we can bring out of this."
The delegation was denied a meeting with Senator Benjamin Cardin (Democrat-Maryland), who was instrumental in devising the list of Russian officials that would likely be targeted by sanctions. The Russian lawmakers also met with Alice Wells, the senior director for Russian affairs on U.S. President Barack Obama's National Security Council, as well as with Wendy Sherman, the U.S. State Department's undersecretary for political affairs.
A department spokesperson said that Sherman, "expressed the administration’s commitment to lifting the application of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment to Russia while also underscoring our belief that protection of fundamental human rights is essential in any nation, including Russia." Enactment of the Magnitsky sanctions has become linked to the potential repeal of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, a Cold War-era piece of legislation that punished the Soviet Union for restricting Jews' ability to emigrate.
It has since functioned as a symbol of Washington's opposition to Moscow's rights violations. Wicker added that he believed that any future progress on these issues was dependent on Russia's own actions. "Russia has made its own bed," he said. "They claim that [the Magnitsky sanctions] will very much harm U.S.-Russian relations for some time to come, but that doesn't need to be the case. "Jackson-Vanik ceased to be quite so important when the emigration issue subsided. If Russia will only join the community of nations in honoring human rights and the rule of law, then the sanctions in the Magnitsky legislation will not kick in in the future. So it's their decision."
At a July 11 press conference at the Russian Embassy in Washington, Russian lawmaker Malkin warned that implementation of the Magnitsky sanctions could hurt bilateral relations for "decades" -- even as he acknowledged that the new investigation was late. His fellow lawmaker, Savenkov, said the U.S. Congress "will be ashamed" if it implements sanctions "due to the current political agenda": "If [Magnitsky] were still alive, he would have been able to explain his position," Savenkov claimed. "I am absolutely sure that he would have cooperated with the [parliamentary] investigation."
Separately, in a strange twist, Mikhail Margelov, the head of the Russian Federation Council's International Affairs Committee, told reporters in Moscow on July 12 that there had in fact been "no special parliamentary investigation of the Magnitsky case." He described the materials presented in Washington this week as the delegation's own initiative.
Richard Solash writes for RFE from where this article is adapted.