MOSCOW — The U.S. Senate on Thursday repealed a trade sanction imposed 38 years ago to force the Soviet Union to allow Jews and other religious minorities to emigrate, replacing it with a modern-day punishment for human rights abuse that has enraged Russian officials.
The old law, one of the last vestiges of the Cold War, was called the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, named after a U.S. senator and a representative. The new law, passed 92 to 4, grants Russia and Moldova permanent normal trade relations, but it is coupled with the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, which honors a dead Russian. The law blacklists Russians connected to the death of Magnitsky in police custody and to other gross human rights violations, prohibiting entrance to the United States and use of its banking system.
“Today, we close a chapter in U.S. history,” Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), one of the prime movers of the Magnitsky bill, said during the debate on Jackson-Vanik. “It served its purpose. Today, we open a new chapter in U.S. leadership for human rights.”
How the United States can best promote democracy and human rights in Russia — and elsewhere — became a matter of agonizing and often bitter debate as pressure grew to repeal Jackson-Vanik. Not only was it widely considered a relic with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and freedom to emigrate from Russia, but, under the regulations of the World Trade Organization, which Russia joined this year, it also penalized American exporters.
The House approved the measure last month. President Obama said he looked forward to signing the law because of the WTO benefits for American workers, although originally the administration had argued that the Magnitsky bill was unnecessary because the president could — and would — create the desired blacklist by executive order.
“My administration will continue to work with Congress and our partners to support those seeking a free and democratic future for Russia and promote the rule of law and respect for human rights around the world,” Obama said in a statement.
“We need the Magnitsky act to fill the gaps in President Obama’s policy,” said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), criticizing Obama for what he called unseemly efforts to avoid offending Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Russia, as expected, was infuriated. Speaking in Brussels on Thursday, Moscow’s special representative on human rights and democracy predicted a tough response, Interfax reported.
“We regard it as unjust and unfounded,” Konstantin Dolgov said. “This is an attempt to interfere in our internal affairs.”
Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz) said the bill should have applied to all countries. The House, however, had already passed the Russia-centric bill, and the Senate decided to go along.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) said, though, that the United States intends to pay attention to human rights everywhere.
“We will stand up for those who dare to speak out against corruption,” she said. “This bill is for all the Magnitskys around the world.”
Cardin, chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, has been pushing for a Magnitsky law since 2010, when most of his colleagues stumbled over pronouncing the Russian name. Debating the bill Wednesday, senator after senator recounted Magnitsky’s life story, his name rolling familiarly off their tongues.
Magnitsky was working for an American law firm in Moscow, advising Hermitage Capital on tax issues, when he discovered a $230 million tax fraud being carried out by Russian police and tax officials using documents stolen from the investment company, run by the American-born William F. Browder.
When Magnitsky accused officials, they arrested him. Magnitsky died in pretrial custody in November 2009 after nearly a year in jail. Despite evidence that he had been beaten and tortured, no one has been punished, and Magnitsky is being prosecuted posthumously.
Browder first testified to the Helsinki Commission about Magnitsky’s imprisonment several months before the Russian’s death. On Thursday, he said he hoped the Senate action would encourage passage of a similar law in Canada and Europe.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said the United States had a moral obligation to speak out for Magnitsky, as well as others who are still alive and languishing unjustly in Russian prisons.
“I continue to worry about them,” McCain said, “and I pray for them.”