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Senate panel approves Magnitsky bill unanimously

Senate panel approves Magnitsky bill unanimously

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has approved a bill to sanction human rights violators around the world, named after Sergei Magnitsky, the Russian anti-corruption lawyer who died after allegedly being tortured in prison by Russian officials.

The Cable has obtained the latest draft of the Senate version of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Act of 2012, which passed the committee unanimously Tuesday afternoon by a voice vote after a short debate. The bill imposes restrictions on the financial activities and travel of foreign officials found to have been connected to various human rights violations in any country. The House version of the bill, approved by the House Foreign Affairs Committee earlier this month, targets only Russian human rights violators. That difference that will have to be worked out between the two chambers before the bill can become law.

"This bill is absolutely motivated by the circumstances of Sergei Magnitsky, but it is universal in its application," said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), the main sponsor of the bill, after the vote. "The sponsors of the House bill have encouraged me to keep it universal, so I think it will not be difficult to get the House to go along with the universality."

The de-emphasis of Russia in the bill is ostensibly meant to tamp down Russian anger over the legislation. The Russian government has promised widespread retaliation, saying that passage of the Magnitsky Act could negatively affect Russian cooperation with Washington on issues ranging from Afghanistan and Iran to nuclear weapons.

Cardin said the bill will now be joined with legislation introduced earlier this month to grant Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status, needed so that U.S. businesses can take advantage of Russia’s pending accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO). The PNTR bill introduced by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) earlier this month and co-sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) would also repeal the 1974 Jackson-Vanik law that sanctioned the Soviet Union for denying Jews the right to emigrate.

"When PNTR comes to the floor, that’s the driving force behind the timing [of passing the Magnitsky bill in the full Senate]," Cardin said. He added that if it was done in July that would also coincide with pending action by the Russian Duma to formally join the WTO. Whether Baucus would join the two bills in his committee or on the Senate floor is still unclear.

The bulk of the debate inside Tuesday’s SFRC business meeting focused on Cardin’s amendment to adjust the way the list of names of human rights violators is managed. Cardin’s amendment would impose some more requirements on the administration if it wants to keep the names of the human rights violated secret in a classified annex, rather than publish them publicly.

SFRC Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) was the lone vote against the Cardin amendment and unsuccessfully tried to get Cardin to withdraw the amendment during the hearing. He is working to preserve more administration flexibility in administrating the classified list of human rights violators and said that there would be more changes in the bill before it reaches the Senate floor.

"We need to be very mindful of the need for the United States not to always be pointing fingers … in some ways we could be doing better ourselves on a number of things," Kerry said. "Nevertheless, human rights are in our DNA and we will always be a nation that stands up for and fights for human rights."

Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) was set to offer an amendment that would sunset the penalties in the bill, meaning that they would expire after five years. Ultimately he decided not to offer the amendment because it was sure to fail, according to multiple Senate aides, but he might offer it at a later stage of the process.

The perception among Hill aides in both parties is that the administration is working hard behind the scenes to weaken the penalties in the Magnitsky bill and provide the State Department greater leeway to keep the names of the violators from becoming public. Kerry and Cardin tried to dispel that idea after the meeting.

"I want as strong a bill as possible," Kerry said, declining to go into specifics of what the administration was telling him about the bill.

Cardin said the administration is still not taking a public position on the Magnitsky Act or the changes being proposed by various senators as the bill moves forward.

"The administration chose not to comment and I think that’s where they are," Cardin said.

Earlier Tuesday, McCain sent a letter to President Barack Obama asking him to use existing executive orders to sanction the Klyuev Group, a Russian crime organization alleged to be involved in Magnitsky’s persecution.

In remarks Tuesday morning at a Freedom House event, McCain lashed out against the idea of keeping the names of the human rights violators subject to the Magnitsky bill secret.

"The fact is, our whole effort here is to make public the names and actions of the people that we think are engaged in these crimes, so I really have deep concerns about that," McCain said. "On the Magnitsky issue, the State Department has been less than enthusiastic… I think it’s based on an unfounded assumption or optimism that things are going to improve between the United States and Russia. I have not seen that improvement."

Allison Good contributing reporting.