Deadline Approaches for Obama Administration to Name Russian Human Rights Abusers

By Patrick Goodenough | March 15, 2013 | 4:48am EDT

President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet during a G20 summit in Los Cabos, Mexico on June 18, 2012. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

( – In less than a month, the Obama administration’s commitment to its so-called “reset” with Russia will be tested when it is required under new bipartisan legislation to submit to Congress a list of egregious human rights violators in Russia.

Under the law he signed on December 14, President Obama has until April 13 to publish the list of abusers in the federal register.

Named for Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian whistleblower who died in pre-trial custody in 2009 amid allegations of abuse, the legislation establishes a blacklist of individuals who would be denied U.S. visas and have any U.S.-based assets frozen.

The administration, which opposed the provision, is required to identify officials responsible for “extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights,” both in the Magnitsky case and others.

President Vladimir Putin’s administration reacted furiously to the “unfriendly” law’s passage, responding by enacting a controversial law banning American families from adopting Russian children.

Russian lawmakers have threatened further retaliation once the list appears, with the head of the State Duma’s international affairs committee, Alexei Pushkov, warning of a Russian blacklist of Americans who will be denied entry.

The recent decision to put Magnitsky on trial for tax evasion – more than three years after his death, reportedly the first such posthumous trial in Russian history – has added to the tensions. A Moscow court on Monday postponed the case until March 22.

No one was convicted over Magnitsky’s death; a prison doctor was tried in connection with the incident, but acquitted last year

Ellen Bork, director of democracy and human rights at the non-profit Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI), said in a memo Thursday the administration’s implementation of the Magnitsky legislation “will be a critical test of America’s longstanding commitment to human rights for the Russian people” and define its second term policy towards Russia.

“The administration’s approach will have ramifications, not only in Russia where a weak effort will embolden President Putin and undermine the opposition figures and activists who favor it, but also in Europe where parliaments are considering their own ‘Magnitsky Acts,’” she said.

The Magnitsky legislation was linked to a measure removing Russia from the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment, a Cold War-era provision that linked trade to free emigration for Jews and other religious minorities. The amendment’s repeal and the extension of permanent normal trade relations were part of the process leading to Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization.

Bork recalled that the Jackson-Vanik amendment had for decades been “synonymous for American support for human rights in the Soviet bloc,” and said the Magnitsky law was a worthy successor to it.

“Denial of the right to emigrate no longer symbolizes the problem of repression in Russia. In fact, educated professionals are leaving Russia in high numbers,” she noted. “But Congress chose to preserve and adapt rather than abandon the lever for American pressure on behalf of human rights there.  Polls show the Magnitsky legislation is popular with Russians despite a general climate of anti-Americanism the Putin government does its best to stoke.”

The FPI describes itself as an organization that “seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America's global economic competitiveness.”

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