Senate holds Russia, Magnitsky bill hearing

In the first and perhaps only opportunity this month for the U.S. Congress to weigh in on recent events in Russia and the implications for U.S. policy, a Senate committee will debate a bill Wednesday that would impose sanctions on Russian officials linked to human rights abuses.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who is to preside over a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee hearing on the state of human rights and rule of law in Russia, co-sponsored the bill along with Sens. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) in memory of Sergei Magnitsky, a 37-year-old whistleblowing lawyer who died in police custody in Russia in November 2009.

Those preparing testimony include David Kramer, the executive director of Freedom House, who says the United States should continue to speak truth to power.

“Secretary [Hillary Rodham] Clinton did a very good job of that last week,” he said by telephone from the United States.

The secretary of state’s criticism of electoral violations reported by international observers touched off a harsh reaction from Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who accused the United States of interfering in the elections and stirring up protest.

A U.S. Senate hearing on a bill offers Washington an opportunity to comment on Russian protests. The legislation is named for lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, a 37-year-old whistle-blowing lawyer who died in police custody in Russia in November 2009. (Courtesy of Hermitage Capital)

Tom Malinowski, director of the Washington office of Human Rights Watch, said he would testify that despite the reaction, Putin and the Russian elite crave international legitimacy and that withholding legitimacy is a powerful weapon.

“It’s too early to tell whether this is an existential challenge to the current order,” he said, “but Russia won’t go back to exactly what it was. The Russian people have effectively hit the reset button on their political culture and system.”

Kramer said the United States should get an ambassador to Moscow quickly. The nominee, Michael McFaul, is very good on issues of democracy and human rights, he said.

He added that lawmakers should also “pass the Magnitsky bill so Russian officials understand there are consequences to human rights abuses.” He said the bill should replace the Cold War-era Jackson-Vanik measure, which threatens Russia with trade restrictions.

Along with backing McFaul’s confirmation, Malinowski said he would urge the administration to impose visa and financial sanctions against the worst human rights violators and most corrupt officials, as proposed by the Magnitsky legislation, and to persuade the European Union to join in the effort.

“I believe this would help to isolate the worst elements of Putin’s security state from the rest of the official establishment, align the United States and European Union with the majority of the Russian people, and make it harder for the bad guys to shelter themselves and their money abroad, in effect, forcing those who are ruining Russia to stay in Russia,” he said.

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