U.S. visa blacklist startles Russia

MOSCOW — For months, Russian officials have denounced Western efforts to put bureaucrats connected to the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky on a visa blacklist, but now that the United States has actually done so, they appear incredulous.

“Lately we’ve had very constructive relations with the United States,” Leonid Slutsky, first deputy chairman of the State Duma’s international affairs committee, said Tuesday during a radio discussion of the blacklist. “Maybe it’s a provocation.”

(Hermitage Capital Management/AFP/Getty Images) - Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky died in custody in 2009 after accusing tax and police officials of a tax fraud scheme.

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The other lawmaker on the Echo Moskvy program suggested that the list was an attempt to distract Americans from their looming debt and political crises. “I have an impression this is designed for the American audience, for American voters,” Dmitry Vyatkin said.

The Washington Post reported Tuesday that the State Department had placed a number of Russian judges, investigators and tax officials involved in the death of Magnitsky, who was in prison at the time, on a visa blacklist.

Such a move was called for by Sens. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) as part of a bill they introduced in May. The bill also includes a provision for visa bans and asset freezes targeting Russians involved in severe human rights abuses.

State Department officials say the bill could unnecessarily provoke Russia, adding that diplomats already have the authority to deny visas. They also emphasize they need a certain level of evidence before putting someone on a visa watch list.

Magnitsky died in pretrial detention in 2009 after accusing Russian tax and police officials of bilking the national treasury out of $230 million with a fraudulent tax-return scheme. The 37-year-old lawyer, who worked for a U.S. firm and was an adviser to the Hermitage Capital investment fund, was denied medical treatment and, by some accounts, was tortured before dying in his cell.

Though the European, Canadian and Dutch parliaments have passed resolutions urging that 60 Russian officials connected to the case be put on a visa blacklist, those governments have yet to follow through. The Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, has described those attempts as interference in internal affairs, but on Tuesday the two lawmakers were conciliatory.

“React?” Vyatkin asked. “To what? To a newspaper publication? Let’s see when someone from this list is stopped at the border. Now, no official reaction is required.”

Slutsky said he could not react to something hypothetical. “But if there is a confirmation,” he said, “I can assure you my reaction will be very strong.”

Human rights activists were pleased with the report. Lyudmila Alexeyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, said that if Russia won’t investigate Magnitsky’s case vigorously, the world should step in.

At first Russia gave promotions and awards to some who handled the Magnitsky case, but under unremitting international pressure, the prosecution of two prison doctors was recently announced. A commission advising President Dmitry Medvedev, however, said the guilt extends far beyond the doctors.

Mikhail Fedotov, head of the presidential Council for Human Rights, told the Interfax news agency Tuesday that it is up to Russia to take responsibility for fighting crime and corruption.

“For us, it is crucial that all those who are really responsible end up on the ‘Magnitsky list’ at the Russian, and not U.S., border,” he said. “We are doing everything we can to make sure that the people from this list are eventually barred — not only from traveling to America, but also from leaving the country at all — and face trial.”

Staff writer Mary Beth Sheridan in Washington contributed to this report.

 
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