Keeping criminal Russian diplomats out the U.S.

Friday, April 30, 2010

ONE THING the Obama administration's "reset" of relations with Russia hasn't changed is Moscow's imperviousness to accountability for criminal offenses by its government at home and abroad. The regime of Vladimir Putin rivals those of Iran or Syria for murders or acts of terrorism outside its borders, including hits in London, Vienna and Dubai; it also has persecuted or confiscated companies with Western owners or shareholders. In no instance has it accepted responsibility. Russian hit men charged by foreign police and prosecutors brazenly serve in the national parliament.

That's why the State Department would do well to take up the recommendation of Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.), who this week proposed the cancellation of U.S. visas for 60 Russian officials involved in a particularly shocking series of crimes. The case concerns an American-born investor, William F. Browder, who was expelled from Russia without due process or even an official explanation. Subsequently, Russian holding companies he had set up were seized by a group of police and security officials and used to obtain $230 million in bogus tax refunds from the Russian government.

When a young Russian lawyer hired by Mr. Browder, Sergey Magnitsky, tried to expose the fraud, he was arrested by some of the same officials involved in the crime, held without trial in one of Russia's worst prisons, tortured and denied medical treatment in an attempt to force him to drop his charges. His death last November in a prison hospital created a brief uproar in Russia; President Dmitry Medvedev, who has sought to project a reformist image, pledged to get to the bottom of the matter.

In the end Mr. Medvedev did little. A few prison officials were dismissed, and a law was changed so that persons accused of tax evasion -- the charge used against Mr. Magnitsky -- cannot be imprisoned. But there have been no criminal charges, and the senior officials who perpetrated or abetted the theft and the subsequent abuse of Mr. Magnitsky remain untouched. According to Mr. Cardin, they include "high-ranking officials from the Russian Interior Ministry, Federal Security Service (FSB), General Prosecutor's office, Federal Tax Service, Federal Prison Service and judges in the Russian court system."

In a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Mr. Cardin, who co-chairs the U.S. Helsinki Commission, points out that a 2004 presidential proclamation prohibits corrupt foreign officials and their family members from entering the United States and obligates the State Department to take action against them. By pulling the visas of the 60 officials and their families, the Obama administration could send a crucial message to Moscow: "Reset" doesn't mean impunity.

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