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Moscow fumes over U.S. Magnitsky bill

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, meets with presidential human rights ombudsman Vladimir Lukin in the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Wednesday, June 27, 2012. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Presidential Press Service)

MOSCOW: Moscow expressed outrage Wednesday over the U.S. Senate’s approval of a bill that would penalize Russian officials for human rights abuses, and warned Americans that adoption of the sanctions would strain U.S.-Russian relations.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed the “Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act,” named after a Russian anti-corruption lawyer whose death in jail in 2009 while in pretrial detention drew widespread condemnation.

Despite broad support in Congress, the bill’s future remains uncertain, partly because U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration is unenthusiastic about a measure that Russia says would be an unwarranted intrusion into its internal affairs.

“The effect on our relations will be extremely negative,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was quoted by state news agency Itar-Tass as saying.

“We are not only deeply sorry but outraged that – despite common sense and all signals Moscow has sent and keeps sending about the counterproductive nature of such steps – work on the ‘Magnitsky law’ continues.”

Ryabkov said adoption of the bill could derail improved ties between Moscow and Washington, part of a policy initiative by the Obama administration to “reset” ties that had become increasingly strained under his predecessor George W. Bush.

“It appears American lawmakers want to break the positive trend in our relationship with such serious irritants,” Ryabkov told Vesti-24 state television.

“There is still time for the initiators of the Magnitsky law to again weigh the situation and ponder the consequences.”

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton downplayed the risk to relations with Moscow.

“We made it very clear that we do have concerns about human rights in Russia, and we have concerns in particular about this [Magnitsky] case,” she told reporters in Helsinki.

“We think there is a way of expressing those concerns without derailing the relationship and that is what we are working with our Congress to do and we have every reason to believe we can accomplish that.”

The death in police custody of Magnitsky, a 37-year-old equity fund lawyer for Hermitage Capital in Moscow, scared investors and blackened Russia’s image abroad. The Kremlin’s own human rights council says he was probably beaten to death.

The bill would require the United States to deny visas to, and freeze the assets of, Russians suspected of being involved in his death.

Ryabkov reiterated Russia’s threat to retaliate with “tough measures” if the bill was passed, in part by passing a tit-for-tat measure denying entry to U.S. citizens it believes are linked to human rights violations.

“There will be a response,” Ryabkov said. “There will be a symmetrical response, but there will also be a number of additional measures.”

President Vladimir Putin this month called Magnitsky’s death a tragedy, but said Moscow would retaliate if the Magnitsky bill were passed.

Mikhail Kasyanov, a prime minister during Putin’s first term who is now an opposition activist, said Moscow was over-reacting.

“All those harsh reactions, that is some kind of Soviet-style reaction, not understanding how nations interact in the 21st century,” Kasyanov said at a forum on the Magnitsky legislation in Washington. “That’s why just, I’m a little bit disappointed that the government of my country behaves so irresponsibly and inappropriately,” he said.

Obama’s administration says it understands concerns over rights abuses but that the bill is redundant as Washington has already imposed visa restrictions on some Russians thought to have been involved in Magnitsky’s death. However, it has not disclosed their names.

In other news, Putin has ordered an overhaul of the upper house of parliament in an apparent reaction to criticism that the Federation Council is little more than a vacation retreat for officials.

The Council, seen as a rubber stamp for the Kremlin, has largely consisted of former officials or Moscow businessmen with few links to the regions they represented.

Putin said in an address to the Council that the reforms should make it “more democratic,” maintaining that they “fully correspond to the logic of the development of our political system on the whole.”

Parliament has passed a series of reforms that have been widely seen as an effort by the Kremlin to assuage the public anger that has spilled into the streets in a series of anti-Putin rallies that drew tens of thousands in Moscow.

Members of the upper house are currently elected by local legislatures. Putin’s bill, which is expected to get parliamentary approval, would allow elected regional governors to appoint a member of their team to the Council with the idea that they would be accountable for the members they appoint.

Putin said prospective members of the Council should come from local legislatures and be residents of the regions they represent for at least five years.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 28, 2012, on page 11.

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