Today, U.S. Senate Finance Committee will consider a bill that would establish permanent normal trade relations (PNTP) with Russia and also graduate Russia from the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment. Introducing the PNTP bill, the Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) pointed out that the bill will create “thousands of U.S. jobs across every sector of the American economy, including manufacturing, agriculture and services, by helping double U.S. exports to Russia within five years.” Unfortunately, some in Congress want to complicate the adoption of the PNTP bill – an urgency, given Russia’s upcoming joining the WTO — by artificially linking it to another, completely unrelated piece of legislation: the so-called Magnitsky bill (S. 1039 and H.R. 4405).
The Magnitsky bill bears the name of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian auditor who worked for the British investment fund Hermitage Capital. In November 2008, Magnitsky was arrested on tax fraud charges; a year later, he died in a pre-trial detention center in Moscow. According to the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), Magnitsky’s arrest was illegal and was an act of retaliation for his uncovering of the embezzlement of Russian state funds committed by a group of tax and law enforcement officials. Moreover, Sen. Cardin and Rep. McGovern allege that while in prison, Magnitsky was tortured and perhaps even killed by his prisoners. Consequently, the Magnitsky bill (the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011) was introduced that would punish 60 Russian officials allegedly involved in Magnitsky’s death by banning their entry in the United State and also freezing their financial assets held in American financial institutions.
Last week, a delegation of the Russian Federation Council headed by Vladimir Malkin, Deputy Chairman of the Committee on International Affairs, came to Washington to meet with members of Congress to discuss the Magnitsky bill. Russian senators presented their American counterparts with a Federation Council preliminary report on the investigation of the Magnitsky case, a document that includes previously unpublished materials related to Magnitsky’s work for the Hermitage Capital, his arrest and pre-trial detention, and his death on November 16, 2009.
Regretfully, Sen. Cardin has refused to meet with Sen. Malkin and other members of the delegation. Even more regretfully, the U.S. legislators outright dismissed the findings of the Federation Council report without giving it full consideration. This is unfortunate, given that the report sheds additional light on the Magnitsky case, and Congress would be wise to review this information before voting on the Magnitsky bill in the coming weeks.
The Federation Council report makes it very clear that “the death of Sergei Magnitsky deserves a comprehensive, large-scale investigation.” It further establishes that Magnitsky “was not provided timely medical assistance in connection with the illnesses that he had” and claims that “those who are to blame…have been identified and must be held liable.” To this end, one has bear in mind that recently, Russia’s Investigative Committee has completed an investigation of the case of Dmitry Kratov, former head of the pretrial detention center where Magnitsky died. The investigation found that Kratov neglected his official duties — which led to Magnitsky’s death — and should stand trial.
At the same time, while admitting that Magnitsky had not received proper medical treatment in a pre-trial detention facility, the Federal Council report insists that his incarceration was legal. The evidence presented in the report alleges that Magnitsky, following the orders of his boss, the Hermitage Capital’s CEO William Browder, designed a tax-evasion scheme allowing the Hermitage Capital to defraud the Russian treasury in the amount of 5.4 billion rubles ($195 million).
The conclusions of the Federation report are not final, yet they put a spotlight directly on William Browder, a British citizen and the driving force behind the Magnitsky bill. Before voting for the bill, members of Congress must ask themselves what motivated Browder’s relentless lobbying for the bill. Is it solely concerns about the death of his former employee or an attempt to shift attention away from his own actions, possibly criminal?
Members of Congress should also explain to the American people why so much effort is being spent on investigating the death, tragic as it is, of a single individual in a remote country. Why has Congress never opened a similar investigation in the deaths of Adam Montoya and Xavius Scullark-Johnson, who both died in U.S. prisons as a result of the criminal negligence of prison officials, exactly as it happened with Sergei Magnitsky? And if our lawmakers are serious about corruption they should look around and reflect why a recent Washington Post op-ed called the District of Columbia a District of Corruption.
Finally, members of Congress should think about the damage that passing of the Magnitsky bill will do to U.S.-Russia relations. Who will benefit from sacrificing our vital national interests for the sake of promoting the selfish agenda of a foreign national?
It’s time for Congress to wise up and to put the Magnitsky bill on hold.