WASHINGTON — The battle over the Sergei Magnitsky case is moving to Europe.
After being lobbied by activists for nearly three years, the U.S. Congress passed legislation in late 2012 to sanction Russian officials implicated in the prosecution and death of Magnitsky, a whistle-blowing Moscow lawyer who died in pretrial detention. The case has come to symbolize Russia’s perceived rights failings.
The U.S. law, which provides for asset freezes and visa bans on Russian officials who violate human rights, was never meant to be an end in itself. Instead, the legislation was a stepping stone to passing something similar in the European Union.
And that effort is now gaining momentum.
“Russians consider themselves, really, like a part of Europe — Europeans,” says Kristiina Ojuland, a member of the European Parliament from Estonia who has spearheaded the push. “And therefore it’s significant that Europe reacts, not only [to] the Magnitsky case, but in broader terms, reacts against this corrupt, black money that is flying into the EU countries.”
Asset freezes and visa bans in Europe would hit Russian officials considerably harder than similar sanctions in the United States. As Ojuland notes, Russian officials are fond of vacationing, shopping, and educating their children in EU countries. They are also more likely to keep money in European banks.
Magnitsky was jailed in 2008 after implicating officials from Russian government ministries in a complex scheme to steal $230 million from state coffers. He was repeatedly denied medical care and beaten before his death in 2009. Several top officials implicated by Magnitsky have since received promotions.
Russia has accused Magnitsky of tax evasion and is trying him posthumously. That trial was due to begin on March 11 but was quickly adjourned until March 22 to give the court-appointed defense team additional time to prepare.
Ojuland’s 2012 proposal recommended an EU-wide visa-restriction regime and asset-freezes to target implicated Russian officials. It was overwhelmingly approved by the European Parliament in a nonbinding resolution, but for EU-wide sanctions to come into effect, all 27 member states would need to agree to them.
The bloc’s foreign ministers have not taken up the issue. Neither has foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
Lawmakers have continued to push, arguing that Europe is obligated to take a moral stand on Russia’s rights and rule-of-law transgressions.
Supporters of sanctions also point to investigations into the money trail that Magnitsky uncovered. Millions of dollars allegedly stolen from the Russian treasury sit in bank accounts in the Baltics, Switzerland, Moldova, and elsewhere in Europe.
In February, Russia’s outgoing Central Bank Chairman Sergei Ignatiev said $49 billion exited the country in 2012 through “questionable transactions.”
But passing sanctions in Europe, which relies on Moscow for one-third of its gas and imported a record 198 billion euros’ worth of goods from Russia in 2011, will also run into stiff opposition.
There are fears that Russia could use this leverage to retaliate against European sanctions. After the U.S. legislation was passed, Moscow responded with a law banning Americans from adopting Russian children.
Prior to last year’s resolution, the European Parliament passed another back in 2010 that also called for sanctions in response to the Magnitsky case, but it went nowhere.
An EU official in Brussels with knowledge of the situation told RFE/RL that Ashton is not ignoring the parliament’s actions and that Magnitsky sanctions are still “on the table.” The official said, however, they are only considered a last resort.
William Browder, CEO of the investment firm Hermitage Capital where Magnitsky worked in Moscow, says he is on a mission to make them a priority.
“After the passage of the Magnitsky Act in America, our single biggest priority became the passage of the same act in Europe,” Browder says. “The American action was extremely significant because it set the precedent, but the European action will be even more material to the Russians because they keep orders of magnitude more property and money in Europe.”
The U.S.-born Browder has led an international campaign to seek justice for his former lawyer. He was instrumental in lobbying for the U.S. Magnitsky law and now says EU-wide sanctions are in sight, despite reservations at the top.
“What can happen and what will happen is that we’re going to drum up such public support that the executive is going to start to worry about this becoming a political issue [over] which they might lose their own support if they take an immoral view,” Browder says.
Browder launched his European campaign in February, meeting with foreign ministry officials and parliamentarians in Berlin and Paris.
On February 27, he testified before the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Irish Parliament.
Ireland is of particular interest in the businessman’s campaign, as the country currently holds the European Union’s rotating presidency, allowing it to shape the agenda of the European Council of foreign ministers.
Browder has done contingency planning as well. His country-by-country push could help convince at least one of the 26 states in Europe’s Schengen Area to enact its own visa bans. The bans would then automatically apply to all other nations in the zone.
As Browder plans more European travel, Russia has charged him with illegally purchasing $100 million in shares of the state-controlled Gazprom company.
The pro-Kremlin television channel NTV recently aired a documentary claiming that Browder was a spy for Britain and had exploited Magnitsky’s death for his own gain.
The businessman says the Russian moves are part of a “desperate” effort to deter his campaign for sanctions.
Meanwhile, European lawmakers and leaders will also be keeping a watchful eye on Washington next month — and the reaction from Moscow that is sure to follow. The first round of names of sanctioned Russian officials is due to be published in the U.S. federal register by April 13.
Ojuland says that will be a “signal” and “encouragement” to European governments.