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State Department unaware Russia trying dead anti-corruption lawyer

The State Department had a response ready at today’s press briefing in case it was asked about the trial of those responsible for the death of Russian anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. The problem is that the Russian’s aren’t trying his killers — they are trying Magnitsky himself — even though he died over two years ...

The State Department had a response ready at today’s press briefing in case it was asked about the trial of those responsible for the death of Russian anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. The problem is that the Russian’s aren’t trying his killers — they are trying Magnitsky himself — even though he died over two years ago.

On Feb. 7, the New York Times reported that the Russian government is moving forward with tax evasion charges against Magnitsky, even though he died in detention in November 2009, reportedly after being abused and then refused medical attention by his captors. The title of the article was "Russia Plans to Retry Dead Lawyer in Tax Case."

Asked about the plan to try Magnistky posthumously at Thursday’s press briefing, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland read from her briefing book the following comment:

"We’ve seen the press reports about the re-opening of the Magnitsky case. We continue to call for Russian authorities to bring those responsible for Sergei Magnitsky’s death to justice."

"But this is the case against him, they’re going to try him," one reporter told Nuland.

"I thought it was, they were re-opening the case against some who were found guilty," Nuland said.

"No, they’re going to try him," the reporter responded. "And he’s dead."

We know the State Department has been following the case because it has become a major cause on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers from both parties are pushing the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011. The bill targets his captors as well as any other Russian officials "responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of human rights."

The administration doesn’t support quick passage of the Magnitsky bill, but last year the State Department did quietly issue visa bans for the Russian officials linked to the case.

Many lawmakers on Capitol Hill want to link the passage of the Magnitsky bill to the repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which was put in place in the 1970s to punish Russia for its treatment of Jewish would-be emigrants, but now stands in the way of U.S.-Russian trade in the context of the WTO.

The administration admitted last July that Russia threatened to torpedo many areas of U.S.-Russian cooperation if the Magnitsky bill became law.

"Senior Russian government officials have warned us that they will respond asymmetrically if legislation passes," the administration said in its official comments on the bill. "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. Russian officials have said that other areas of bilateral cooperation, including on transit Afghanistan, could be jeopardized if this legislation passes."

"The Russian Duma has already proposed legislation that would institute similar travel bans and asset freezes for U.S. officials whose actions Russia deems in violations of the rights of Russian citizens arrested abroad and brought to the United States for trial," the administration said. "We have no way to judge the scope of these actions, but note that other U.S. national security interests will be affected by the passage of the S. 1039."

Responding to a request from The Cable, Nuland sent out a statement Thursday afternoon that addressed the trial of Magnitsky himself:

"Pursuing criminal charges against Sergey Magnitskiy serves no purpose other than to deflect attention away from the circumstances surrounding this tragic case. We continue to call for Russian authorities to bring those responsible for Mr. Magnitskiy’s death to justice.”

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

Tag: Russia