Russia has accused the United States of engaging in cold war tactics and threatened tit-for-tat retaliation after the US Senate passed a bill banning Russian officials accused of human rights abuses from travelling to the country.
The US Senate on Thursday passed the Magnitsky Act, named after a Russian lawyer for London-based investor William Browder, who died in prison, as part of a bill that lifts Soviet-era trade restrictions on Russia. The bill, which must be signed by President Barack Obama before coming into force, includes a visa ban and asset freeze on those officials involved in Magnitsky’s death.
Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said after meeting Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, in Dublin late on Thursday that Russia would retaliate. “We will also close entry to Americans who are guilty of human rights violations,” he said.
Many Russians laughed off the threat, noting that the Russian propensity to keep assets and property in the US is not reciprocated. “And now they’ll shut down entry to Russia for some American officials who are involved, let’s say, in the death of Afghan kids. What are they going to do, cry?” Margarita Simonyan, the Kremlin-friendly head of Russia Today, the state-run international news channel, wrote on Twitter.
The Kremlin marshalled the Young Guard, the youth wing of the ruling United Russia party, to protest. The group held a protest in front of the US embassy in Moscow on Friday with the sign: “The US is a police state.”
“The US positions itself as a country of freedom. And yet, the American leadership is itself infringing upon the freedom of citizens of another country,” Maxim Rudnev, a member of the Young Guard, said in a statement. “It’s worth asking: is the United States deserving of hosting the Statue of Liberty?”
The Russian foreign ministry lashed out on its official Twitter account late on Thursday, saying the Senate’s adoption of the Magnitsky Act “will adversely affect the prospects of bilateral co-operation”. Then it went further, writing that the move “is like something out of the theatre of the absurd”.
“Apparently, Washington has forgotten what year this is and still thinks the cold war is going on,” the official account wrote. “It is perplexing and preposterous to hear human rights complaints from the US, where torture and kidnapping are legal in the 21st century.”
“This biased approach is nothing but a vindictive desire to counter Russia in world affairs,” it said.
Sergei Magnitsky was arrested in late 2008 while uncovering an alleged $230m (£143m) fraud carried out by a group of Russian police and tax officials. He was found dead in a Russian prison nearly a year later, after being repeatedly denied medical treatment and allegedly tortured. Browder, who hired him to investigate the fraud, has lobbied hard for Russian officials to be punished abroad, noting that justice in his lawyer’s death is unlikely to come in Moscow.
A new poll released on Friday found that 39% of Russians supported the US law, versus 14% who were against it.
Obama praised the Senate’s decision to pass the bill 92-4 on Thursday and was expected to sign it into law soon.