ALL TOO frequently, senior U.S. officials play down gross violations of human rights by regimes perceived to be important to other American interests. The case of Khadija Ismayilova, an Azerbaijani journalist, is a particularly disturbing example. Ms. Ismayilova trained in Washington at Voice of America before returning to her homeland to work for another U.S.-funded radio station, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. She produced groundbreaking investigative reports about the corruption of Azerbaijan’s ruler, Ilham Aliyev, and his family; the recently released Panama Papers confirmed the truth of her account of offshore companies used by the Aliyevs to hold their interest in a gold mine.
For the past 16 months, Ms. Ismayilova has been jailed in Baku on trumped-up charges of tax evasion and illegal business activities linked to the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty bureau she headed. Last September she was sentenced to 7½ years in prison. She is not only a persecuted journalist, but also one who was working for a U.S.-funded radio station that is dedicated to free expression.
Yet the Obama administration has responded weakly. A State Department statement at the time of her conviction said “the United States is deeply troubled” by the case, and called for her release. But when Mr. Aliyev met with Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Vice President Biden during a recent visit to Washington, neither said anything in public about Ms. Ismayilova. Other Azeri political prisoners were released before Mr. Aliyev’s visit, so it is hard to dispute the assessment we heard from one Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty official: “If the White House had made [Ms. Ismayilova] a priority, she would be out.”
The case illustrates why Congress should approve pending legislation on international human rights abuses. A bill known as the Global Magnitsky Act would create a process for the imposition of U.S. sanctions on “any foreign person” who commits abuses against human rights activists or “individuals . . . who seek to expose illegal activity carried out by government officials.” It’s an expansion of a 2012 law that provided for sanctions against Russian officials, including those involved in the imprisonment and death of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who exposed a massive embezzlement scheme.
The Obama administration resisted the original Magnitsky Act but has since publicly imposed sanctions on 39 Russians under its provisions. A global law would pressure (but not require) future administrations to take action in cases such as that of Ms. Ismayilova. Importantly, the chairmen and ranking members of relevant congressional committees would be able to raise specific cases with the executive branch, which would be required to respond.
Sponsored by Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), the Global Magnitsky Act passed the Senate in December and is awaiting action in the House. Some administration officials object that the legislation could have the consequence of restricting U.S. action to a relatively narrow band of human rights cases, those involving human rights campaigners and whistleblowers. But a more comprehensive approach could swamp the State and Treasury departments — and nothing would prevent the White House from launching initiatives in cases of genocide and other major rights violations.
The Global Magnitsky Act would promote a better balance between pragmatism and principle. The House should pass it promptly.
Read more on this topic: