MOSCOW — City officials denied permission Monday for a rally on behalf of a lawyer who died in police custody in 2009, revealing deep sensitivity to a case that has provoked accusations of high-level corruption here and set off threats of sanctions as far away as Washington.
The death of Sergei L. Magnitsky has prompted debates in Congress and among lawmakers, human rights advocates and the Obama administration over how U.S. foreign policy should address trade issues and human rights abuses in Russia.
Moscow authorities have refused to allow a rally on Saturday calling for justice for Magnitsky, even as they have permitted a series of provocative demonstrations during which Russians shouted insults directed at Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, only recently an unimaginable situation.
“How can you say rallying for justice is wrong?” asked Natalia Pelevine, a playwright and activist who applied for the permit. “Justice is wrong?”
She said city officials, who could not be reached for comment Monday evening, told her that such a gathering would influence court proceedings.
Magnitsky was working for an American law firm in Moscow, advising the Hermitage Capital investment company on tax issues, when he discovered that thieves had used a fraudulent tax return to get $230 million from the Russian treasury. When he accused tax and police officials, they charged Magnitsky with the crime.
He died in jail at the age of 37 while the case was being investigated, denied medical attention and with bruises on his body. Recently, Russian authorities reopened the case against him, putting him on trial in death.
Last year, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) and others introduced the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, requiring the United States to deny visas and freeze assets of Russians or others connected to human rights abuses, identifying them and reporting to Congress on enforcement of the penalties.
The Obama administration has lobbied against the bill, saying the State Department has satisfied the desire for punishment by quietly putting together a blacklist of unwelcome visitors.
Now the administration wants Congress to remove Russian products from sanctions applied by the Cold War-era Jackson-Vanik trade amendment, and a group of senators is demanding passage of the Magnitsky bill in return. If restrictions are left in place, the United States will violate World Trade Organization rules when Russia enters that body, imposing unfavorable conditions on U.S. businesses. Democrats are pushing hard for removal of the restrictions, supported by Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who has many cattle ranchers among his constituents.
Republicans, critical of Obama’s Russia policy, have been reluctant to change Jackson-Vanik, which they see as registering disapproval over human rights questions.
Last week, Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) came out in favor of lifting the restrictions, but only in return for passage of the Magnitsky bill. McCain has openly taunted Putin, once tweeting: “Dear Vlad, The #ArabSpring is coming to a neighborhood near you.” McCain’s support could persuade other Republicans to go along.
Russian activists also favor the swap. “We see the Magnitsky bill as a measure against concrete individuals — people who Russians themselves want to see punished,” Pelevine said. “It is not aimed at the Russian people.”