MOSCOW — The U.S. State Department has quietly put Russian officials connected to the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky on a visa blacklist as Moscow threatens to curtail cooperation on Iran, North Korea, Libya and the transit of supplies for Afghanistan if the Senate passes a measure imposing even tougher sanctions for human rights abuses.
The Russian government has grown ever more infuriated by a series of international reprimands over the case of the 37-year-old lawyer who died a painful death in pretrial detention, and it has complained that other countries are interfering in its domestic affairs.
The European Parliament, Canada and the Netherlands are moving toward their own visa bans for a list of 60 Russians involved in the case. The United States, however, is the first to have an active blacklist for the Russians, although senior U.S. officials say it has fewer than 60 names.
In comments on the Senate bill issued last week, the Obama administration revealed the threats of retaliation as well as, for the first time, its visa blacklist. “Secretary [Hillary Rodham] Clinton has taken steps to ban individuals associated with the wrongful death of Sergei Magnitsky from traveling to the United States,” the document said.
“Senior Russian government officials have warned us that they will respond asymmetrically if this [Senate] legislation passes,” the document said. “Their argument is that we cannot expect them to be our partner in supporting sanctions against countries like Iran, North Korea, and Libya, and sanction them at the same time. Russian officials have said that other areas of bilateral cooperation, including on transit to Afghanistan, could be jeopardized if this legislation passes.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry said Monday it would respond to questions on the issue but perhaps not until later in the week.
Despite possible threats to what the Obama administration calls the “reset” in U.S.-Russia relations and the implications for U.S. interests, supporters of the Senate proposal that has provoked the threats of retaliation say it is the right thing to do.
“The reset has brought about improvement in relations,” said David Kramer, executive director of Freedom House and a former State Department official, “but at the end of the day we’re still dealing with the same Russia, which shows no respect for human rights, no accountability and no respect for rule of law.”
A reset policy can only do so much, and a United States that is talking about human rights in the Middle East cannot look the other way for Russia, he said.
Magnitsky was working for an American law firm in Moscow and advising Hermitage Capital, the large Western investment company run by William Browder, when he accused police and tax officials of a $230 million tax fraud. He was quickly arrested and himself charged with the crime.
Almost a year later, in November 2009, he died in prison after being denied medical care for apparent pancreatitis and most likely being badly beaten in his final hours. Those connected to the case were given promotions and public commendations, until this month, when the authorities announced that two low-level prison doctors would be prosecuted for neglecting Magnitsky’s care.
In May, Sens. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) introduced the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, which listed the names of officials involved in the Magnitsky case. Though named for Magnitsky, it would apply to other extreme future and past cases, such as the unsolved murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya. It would freeze assets as well as visas.
Advocates of the bill suggested that Russia permits the transportation of supplies through its territory to Afghanistan and supports U.S. policies because it’s in the country’s interest, not out of altruism.
“They don’t have to worry about anything if they don’t kill journalists or lawyers,” Kramer said.
Cardin’s list of officials connected to the Magnitsky case includes judges, Federal Security Service agents, high- and mid-level police officers, prison wardens and doctors, prosecutors, and tax auditors and inspectors.
The Obama administration’s comments on the bill raised questions about freezing assets and broadening visa restrictions beyond the Magnitsky case, citing difficulties in implementation. U.S. officials say they already have the authority to put people on the blacklist, and they have to be careful there is sufficient evidence to act against people who haven’t been convicted of a crime.
The Russian State Duma, or lower house, has already been discussing a bill that would target U.S. officials with similar sanctions, referring to the extradition of Russian citizens from third countries.
“If they’re comparing Sergei Magnitsky to Viktor Bout [the accused Russian arms dealer being held in New York], then we don’t have much to talk about,” Kramer said.
Staff writer Mary Beth Sheridan in Washington contributed to this report.