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Russia denies visa for leading congressional human-rights advocate

Russia denies visa for leading congressional human-rights advocate

The Russian government has denied a visa for a prominent congressman in what that the lawmaker believes is clear retaliation for U.S. efforts to punish Russian human rights violators.

Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on human rights, has been traveling to Russia and before that the Soviet Union for decades. But this month, the Russian government denied him a visa for the first time, despite a personal intervention from the U.S. ambassador in Moscow.

In an interview Wednesday with The Cable, Smith said the Russians were already retaliating for a recent U.S. law that seeks to call out and punish Russian human rights violators. That bill, the Sergei Magnitsky Accountability and Rule of Law Act of 2012, was named after the Russian anti-corruption lawyer who died in prison, allegedly after being tortured by Russian officials.

Smith was an original sponsor of the bill.

"The Magnitsky bill is the reason I didn’t get the visa. This is the first time," Smith said. "I was shocked. During the worst days of the Soviet Union I went there repeatedly."

The Russian government gave Smith no explanation for its action. Smith met with Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak just before the visa was denied, and Kislyak told Smith the decision was made in Moscow, not Washington.

Smith also said that the State Department, including U.S. Ambassador to Russia Mike McFaul, tried to intervene on his behalf but was unsuccessful.

The purpose of Smith’s planned visit was to discuss the other actions the Russian government has taken to respond to the Magnitsky law, including passing a law banning American adoptions of Russian orphans last December. Smith said he wants to straightforwardly address Russian concerns about alleged abuses of past adoptees.

"I even have a resolution that highlights the fact that those 19 kids died. If somebody is responsible for this, they ought to pay a price," he said. "I was going over to talk about adoption and human trafficking. They have legitimate concerns that we have to meet."

With this action, Russia joins a short list of countries that have denied Smith entry due to his work on human rights, Smith said.

"I’ve been rejected in China, Cuba, and Belarus, but I’m pro-engagement, as long as you’re honest and aggressive," he said. "I’m disappointed but I am determined to have it reversed. So I’m going to reapply.