US Magnitsky Law draws Kremlin ire – but many Russians support it

The new law, enacted in the US last week to target Russians involved in the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, has infuriated the Kremlin, which sees it as a 'purely political, unfriendly act.'

Dmitry Lovetsky/AP
A demonstrator holds a poster reading "Add Putin to 'Magnitsky List'" during an anti-government rally in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Saturday. The Magnitsky List, a piece of US legislation signed into law on Friday, targets Russian officials involved in the 2009 death of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.

Russia's State Duma will take up a stern new bill Tuesday, the Dima Yakovlev List, aimed at punishing US officials who are implicated in human rights violations against Russians, including adoptive children who die at the hands of American parents and others allegedly abused by the US justice system.

The Duma bill appears to be pure retaliation for the Magnitsky List, targeted against Russian officials involved in the 2009 prison death of Russian anti-corruption whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky, which was signed into law by President Obama on Friday.

The Yakovlev List, named after one of about 15 Russian children to die at the hands of their adoptive US parents in the past two decades, will levy tough economic and visa sanctions against American officials perceived to be involved in mistreatment of Russians.

While most Americans seem likely to ignore the Yakovlev List, a recent poll suggests that a plurality of Russians may be delighted to see their own officials squirm under the pressure of the Magnitsky Act. A late November survey by the independent Levada Center in Moscow found that 39 percent of Russians fully or mostly agree with the import of the US law, while just 14 percent reacted negatively toward it. Another 48 percent of Russians said they were undecided.

"This suggests that as much as people may dislike the idea of the US interfering in our internal affairs, they hate their own officials more," says Masha Lipman, editor of the Moscow Carnegie Center's Pro et Contra journal.

"Apparently much of the public would be happy to see corrupt Russian officials punished, however and by whomever....  What we see at work here is growing public anger against [the bureaucracy]. It may not show up as street protests, but it's a very real factor," she adds.

This cold war-style legislative tit-for-tat is erupting at what might have been a positive moment in US-Russia relations. After nearly four decades of hexing the ties between Moscow and Washington, the much-resented Jackson-Vanik amendment was abolished by the US Senate in early December, and along with it the humiliating requirement that Russia obtain annual certification of its human rights record in order to enjoy normal trade relations with the US.

But senators replaced Jackson-Vanik with the Magnitsky List, which more narrowly targets Russian officials implicated in Mr. Magnitsky's case and other alleged human rights violators. The reaction of official Russia last week was white hot. Russia's Foreign Ministry said in a statement Friday that the Magnitsky List amounts to "open meddling in our internal affairs and is a blind and dangerous position." President Vladimir Putin told Russian TV viewers last week that the US law was a "purely political, unfriendly act."

"The [Magnitsky List] is a crazy precedent, because a legislative body has taken over the functions of a court," says Andrei Klimov, deputy chair of the Duma's international affairs commission, which was responsible for drafting the retaliatory Yakovlev List.

"For the first time in human history they presume to nominate the 'guilty' and then keep the list secret.... This is already influencing our relationship [with the US], all this past year while it was being discussed," he adds.

Who was Magnitsky?

Magnitsky was a lawyer working for the London-based Hermitage Capital – once the largest foreign investor in Russia – when he uncovered what he alleged was a vast scam by top Russian police and tax officials to embezzle $230 million in taxes paid by Hermitage firms in 2006.

He went to the State Investigative Committee, Russia's top investigative body, and testified that officials had falsely re-registered Hermitage companies under other names, using company seals and charters seized in an earlier police raid, and subsequently received a full tax rebate with the help of highly-placed accomplices in the tax department.

The Investigative Committee has apparently never looked into Magnitsky's evidence. Instead, Magnitsky was soon arrested by the very same police officers who had conducted the earlier raid on Hermitage's Moscow office and charged, ironically, with tax evasion. Within a year, Magnitsky was dead. A report by the Kremlin's own human rights commission concluded in 2011 that Magnitsky had been systematically denied medical attention, was illegally prosecuted by the same officials he had implicated, was almost certainly beaten to death, and the whole affair was subsequently covered up.

Russia's top prosecutor has announced that the deceased Magnitsky will be put back on trial in January, with his mother standing in for him, even though such a posthumous trial is of dubious legality and has no precedents in Russian law.

"Official behavior in the Magnitsky case is bizarre. They seem convinced that it's all a humiliation of Russia, though there is serious evidence that has been gathered by foreigners about the case, who were basically doing the work that our investigators should have done," says Viktor Kremeniuk, deputy director of the official Institute of USA-Canada Studies in Moscow.

Magnitsky's former boss and head of Hermitage Capital, Bill Browder, has spent the past three years bankrolling private investigators and lobbying foreign governments to enact legislation like the Magnitsky List. He has compiled a 75-page report which summarizes what looks like a devastating case against an alleged crime organization inside Russia's government and the systematic efforts of the Kremlin to protect it.

'A positive step'

"The Magnitsky Act is a positive step; for the first time international legal sanctions are targeting Russian human rights violators," says Yevgeny Ikhlov, an expert with For Human Rights, a grassroots Moscow-based coalition.

"It means that the international community is starting to recognize that the routine conspiracies against justice practiced by Russian officials represent a threat beyond the borders of Russia," he adds.

But Sergei Markov, vice rector of the Plekhanov Economic University in Moscow and a frequent adviser to President Putin, argues that the US has started a diplomatic fight with the Magnitsky Act that can only befoul the relationship and block any productive outcomes in the Magnitsky case.

"An insult has to be answered," he says. "The US law violates the presumption of innocence concerning a number of Russian state officials, it expresses a lack of trust toward the Russian legal system, and there is considerable fear that the number of people added to the list will keep growing.... What worries me most is that this the Magnitsky Act might start a chain of negative reactions."

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