The United States has imposed visa bans on Russian officials connected to the 2009 prison death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, whose case that has come to symbolize corruption and the state of human rights in Russia.
In doing so, the administration of President Barack Obama looks to heed lawmakers’ calls for Washington to take action, while minimizing potential damage to the “reset” of relations with Moscow.
The announcement was made quietly to Congressmen in the administration’s written reaction to a Senate bill that seeks broader sanctions — both visa bans and asset freezes — against the officials. The bill would also pave the way for the United States to take similar action in other cases, and has provoked the ire of Moscow.
A congressional source familiar with the matter told RFE/RL that the administration statement said that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “has taken steps to ban individuals associated with the wrongful death of Sergei Magnitsky from traveling to the United States.”
It specified that the individuals are “already flagged in the visa-adjudication system used by visa officers.”
On July 27, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said Moscow would respond to U.S. plans to impose visa restrictions on Russian officials. “It is clear that such actions can be a serious irritant in Russian-U.S. relations and damage attempts to improve trust and constructive cooperation,” a statement said.
Kremlin spokeswoman Natalya Timakova was quoted the next day as saying President Dmitry Medvedev had ordered visa bans against several U.S. officials.
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner later defended the move, saying it was part of a broader U.S. program to limit the travel of human rights violators.
“Where we have credible evidence of association or culpability [for human rights violations], we do issue visa restrictions on individuals around the world,” he said. “In this specific case it was the individuals that we believe are responsible for [Magnitsky’s] death.”
Looking For Justice
Citing senior U.S. officials, “The Washington Post” said the blacklist did not cover all 60 people indentified as responsible in the Senate bill.
That list was first compiled with the help of William Browder, the CEO of investment firm Hermitage Capital, which Magnitsky represented.
Since the lawyer’s death, and while the top officials on the list remain unpunished at home, Browder has led a campaign to seek justice outside of Russia.
“I think at this point, there is nothing [Russia] can do to avoid sanctions of people who are involved in torture and murder,” Browder told RFE/RL’s Russian Service after learning of the visa bans.
“I think that what they can do in terms of not having this happen in any other case is to clean up their judicial system and prosecute all these people. I mean, it is absurd that the United States says, ‘These people are torturers and murderers, they can’t come into our country.’ And in Russia, these same people are being promoted and given state honors and with no consequence at all to their crime.”
In 2008, Magnitsky was arrested after implicating top officials from Russia’s Interior Ministry, Federal Security Service, and other agencies in a complex scheme to defraud the government of $230 million.
He died in 2009 after nearly a year in pretrial detention, during which he was repeatedly denied medical care. A report on Magnitsky’s death issued this month by the Kremlin’s human rights council said the lawyer had also been severely beaten before dying.
Amid international outrage, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev fired 20 prison officials after Magnitsky’s death. Last week authorities launched criminal investigations against two others. However, the top officials implicated by Magnitsky have been given promotions.
Matthew Rojansky, the deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment, a Washington think tank, says the Obama administration is carefully balancing its interests in issuing the visa bans.
He said the move might be a way to take the Magnitsky issue “out of Congress’s hands,” and as a result, avoid additional damage that the more far-reaching Senate bill could inflict on the “reset.”
The administration feels it “doesn’t need Congress to tell it who to put on a visa ban list; it can do that itself. It didn’t like the notion that these things were supposed to be made public, because, of course, that’s not U.S. policy — we don’t make visa-ban names public,” Rojansky said. “And generally, it doesn’t like the notion that Congress is going to be running its Russia policy at a sensitive time in the relationship.”
Rojansky said that by quietly imposing the visa bans, and perhaps on only some of the officials listed in the Senate bill, the administration is taking action without making it a “blunt instrument against Russia.”
Russian opposition to the Senate bill was on full display in June, when lawmakers in Moscow introduced a retaliatory bill into the Duma that would ban visas and freeze assets of foreigners deemed to have violated the rights of Russian citizens.
More ominously, “The Washington Post” quoted the administration’s announcement of the visa bans as saying: “Senior Russian government officials have warned us that they will respond asymmetrically if this [Senate] legislation passes. Their argument is that we cannot expect them to be our partner in supporting sanctions against countries like Iran, North Korea, and Libya, and sanction them at the same time.”
The statement adds that Russian cooperation on the transit of supplies to Afghanistan could also be jeopardized by passage of the “Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act.”
It remains to be seen whether that warning, coupled with the visa ban, is enough to dilute strong bipartisan support for the bill.
Rojansky also notes that the administration must win the support of Congress in order to remove trade restrictions on Russia and allow it to join the World Trade Organization — a move Obama has vowed to pursue as the next step in the “reset.”
The administration could be wagering, Rojansky said, that enacting the visa bans will win some lawmakers’ support.
More To Come?
Those considerations aside, Hermitage Capital’s Browder said the U.S. move set a precedent for the European Union, Canada, the Netherlands, and others to follow.
“We’ve been in touch with a number of other countries all over Europe and I would expect that because the United States has done this, it gives everybody else the confidence to do it as well,” he said.
“And you’ll see many other countries doing this. I don’t think that these 60 people who killed Sergei Magnitsky or were involved in this terrible crime will be able to travel much other than to really uncivilized places in the future.”