WASHINGTON, November 16 (By Carl Schreck for RIA Novosti) – US lawmakers on Friday overwhelmingly passed the “Magnitsky Act” to punish Russians deemed to have violated human rights, and also lifted a landmark Cold War-era law that has long impeded normal US-Russia trade relations.
Russia issued an angry response within minutes of the vote in the House of Representatives, calling the measure “unfriendly and provocative” and warning that a “tough” response would be forthcoming.
The House voted 365 to 43 to approve a bill simultaneously repealing the Jackson-Vanik restrictions on trade with Russia dating back to 1974 and imposing new rules linking trade and rights following a debate in which both Republican and Democratic lawmakers voiced firm support for the legislation.
“The House should be proud of what it is accomplishing today for human rights and the rule of law for the Magnitsky family, for the Russian people, for honorable Russian officials, and for human rights defenders inside and outside Russia,” Rep. Jim McGovern, a Democrat from Massachusetts, said ahead of the vote.
He termed the bill “precedent-setting human rights legislation.”
The legislation would require the US government to deny visas to Russian officials suspected of involvement in the death of whistleblowing lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in a Moscow jail three years ago Friday, as well as freeze their assets.
The measures would allow the United States to take such action against Russian officials suspected of alleged human rights violations in other cases in the future.
The bill passed Friday in the House now goes to the Senate, where it was also expected to be approved, before being sent to President Barack Obama for signing. Obama has opposed linking the Magnitsky Act to normalizing trade ties with Russia, but was expected to sign the legislation into law.
The Russian government has made its hostility to the new measures clear and has accused the United States of meddling in its internal affairs by pushing the Magnitsky Act, which also calls for the names of the targeted officials to be made public.
“Congressmen have ignored the repeated warnings that this step would have a negative impact on the general atmosphere of Russian-US relations and will not go without a tough response from our side,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement released immediately following the House vote.
Russia has also said the United States has no business criticizing the state of human rights in Russia given its own record.
“Considering very crude violations of human rights in the United States itself, including the practical legalization of torture and the indefinite holding of inmates without trial in special CIA prisons and at the Guantanamo base [in Cuba], the United States has no moral right to preach or moralize to other countries,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said Thursday.
In addition to the Magnitsky component, the legislation passed by the House Friday simultaneously cancels the Cold War-era Jackson-Vanick amendment—which was aimed at holding the Soviet Union, among other nations, accountable for their human rights record—and establish permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) with Russia.
After Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in August, Washington must enact PNTR with Moscow in order to afford US producers the maximum economic benefit of operating on the Russian market.
A broad consensus has formed on the PNTR issue among US officials, businesses and industry lobbies, who say the US economy stands to benefit greatly from opening up the Russian market to American entrepreneurs.
The White House, however, had sought to keep the issues of PNTR and the repeal of Jackson-Vanick separate from the Magnitsky bill—a position widely seen as an attempt to prevent the Magnitsky legislation from negatively impacting US-Russian cooperation on issues such as counterterrorism and arms reduction.
While the bill passed by the House on Friday calls for the names of the targeted Russian officials to be published, it also allows the White House to classify names it believes could damage US interests if released.
McGovern noted Friday that the bill allows the White House to classify the names of targeted Russian officials “only if the president determines that it is absolutely vital to the national security interests of the United States and provides Congress with prior notice and justification.”