How many times have I said in the past few years that the Senate has stood up for human rights? Not many, but it is deserving for two actions taken yesterday.
First, a bipartisan resolution co-sponsored by Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and 30 other senators called for the immediate and unconditional release of Alan Gross from imprisonment in Cuba. The resolution also calls on Cuba to provide needed medical treatment to Gross, who reportedly is quite ill and has lost more than 100 pounds in prison. Gross was the U.S. contractor thrown in the dungeons of Cuba after a Mickey Mouse trial for bringing satellite phones to the Jewish community there. This outrage followed the U.S. administration’s lightening of sanctions on Cuba, a move yet to be reversed.
The resolution is important not only because it prevents Gross from being forgotten and gives hope to him and all imprisoned human rights victims; it also may stop in the tracks any deal by which Gross would be released in exchange for release of five convicted Cuban spies. The Post editorial board put it this way: “There is no equivalence between Mr. Gross and the five prisoners, as Havana itself acknowledges. It agrees the Florida prisoners were its spies, but it has never charged Mr. Gross with espionage.” So bravo to the Senate for its demand for Gross’s unconditional release.
Even better, the U.S. Senate, by a vote of 92 to 4 passed a trade bill with Russia that normalizes trade relations and includes human rights sanctions for the first time that would deny visas to those Russian officials involved in human rights abuses, including the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky who was beaten to death in prison,. The Hill explains:
The Magnitsky language — largely supported by Democrats — would require the administration to identify officials involved in Russian tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky’s death, make those names public, and freeze the U.S. assets related to those officials. Magnitsky was investigating corruption and theft of the Russian government when he was jailed.
Senate Finance Committee ranking member Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said that portion of the bill was “a powerful new tool to battle corruption” in Russia.
“If the [Obama] administration uses these tool effectively we will see ourselves in the future working side-by-side with a Russia free of corruption,” Hatch said. The bill now goes to President Obama’s desk for his signature. The administration said it supports the measure.
The administration opposed the bill for a very long time, fearing it would damage the “reset” with Russia. Only when the bill was broadened to include human rights abusers in every country did the administration come out in favor of the Russia-only human rights bill. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) deserves special praise for championing the legislation.
Hatch is right that this may revolutionize human rights protection. By depriving Russians of the luxuries of the West, the bill provides a powerful disincentive for them to carry out Vladimir Putin’s dirty work. In subsequent legislation, it should be expanded to other countries.
Both these actions show the powerful role that Congress can play even when the president is inert on human rights. President Obama is not inclined to lead on this issue, so Congress must.