The case of Sergei Magnitsky has come to symbolize the rampant and often violent corruption plaguing the Russian state. Sergei, a 37-year-old tax lawyer, husband and father working for an American firm in Moscow, blew the whistle on the largest known tax fraud in Russian history. For that he was arrested in 2008 by those he accused, and he was imprisoned under torturous conditions for nearly a year. He was denied medical care and beaten by prison guards; he died alone in November 2009 in an isolation cell as doctors waited outside his door. These facts are accepted at the highest levels of Russia’s government, yet those implicated in his death remain unpunished, in positions of authority. Some have even been decorated and promoted.
Sergei joins a heartbreaking list of Russian heroes who lost their lives because they stood up for principle. These ranks include Natalya Estemirova, a brave human rights activist whose
bullet-riddled body was found on a roadside in 2009 in the North Caucasus; Anna Politikovskaya, an intrepid reporter shot in Moscow in 2006 while carrying home groceries; and too many others.
While many aspects of Sergei’s and other cases are difficult to pursue in the United States, there are steps we can take.
In April 2010, I called upon the State Department to implement a travel ban against 60 Russian officials involved in Sergei’s torture and death. Last month, State effectively did just that, putting dozens of Russian officials on a visa blacklist. This is a major step, but it doesn’t go far enough.
Sergei’s case is but one of many gross violations of human rights going unpunished in Russia. Additionally, kleptocrats are well aware of the threat to their fortunes from corrupt colleagues and seek financial havens abroad. The Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, which I co-sponsored along with 20 other senators, is a broad human rights bill that would invoke a travel ban against serious violators of human rights, freeze any U.S. assets they may possess and publish their names — a powerful deterrent for those craving respectability and legitimacy in the West.
This bipartisan effort sends the unambiguous warning that even if your home country looks the other way as you violate human rights and trample the rule of law, the United States will not stand by as an unwitting accomplice in your crimes. The legislation provides moral support to those who suffer or risk their safety to fight for justice. It will also go a long way in protecting American companies active in the Russian market that risk falling prey to raiding schemes and that may fear reprisal for speaking out.
Shortly after Sergei’s death, the American founding partner of the firm that employed him fled Russia, fearing for his life after evidence surfaced that a similar scheme was about to be perpetrated against other U.S. clients. We know that some of the money stolen from the Russian treasury in the fraud Sergei exposed passed through correspondent accounts at two major U.S. banks. Some involved in this case are known to have links with international arms smugglers and drug cartels.
The threats and cynical reaction to my legislation further expose the character of those who hold power in Russia, where, despite occasional rhetoric from the Kremlin, authorities have failed to take meaningful action to stem the rampant corruption or bring perpetrators of human rights abuses to justice. Their bluster contrasts sharply with the strong support on the Russian street for serious action against corruption and impunity.
We must be willing to see beyond the veil of sovereignty that corrupt officials often hide behind. They use courts, prosecutors, police and international instruments such as Interpol or mutual legal assistance treaties as weapons of intimidation, hoping that outsiders are given pause by their trappings of office and lack of criminal records. We must also protect our financial system from those who would use it to launder ill-gotten gains.
While I support President Obama’s efforts to improve U.S.-Russian relations, we must not abandon American values in the process; nor should we minimize the power of our influence and example. Our president has made clear that Russia’s economic success depends heavily on whether Russia can modernize and liberalize politically. I agree and see a strong, stable Russia that is prosperous and free as a valuable partner in a dangerous world. But we must first make clear that the rule of law and respect for human rights advance better relations and increased trade, and they are not distant goals.
The coming year promises to be an interesting one for bilateral relations, with elections in Russia and the United States. Let’s take the long view and remember our true friends in Russia — in and out of government — and stand with them in the universal cause of liberty and human dignity.
The writer, a Democrat from Maryland, is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and co-chair of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission).