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In Washington, Russian senators push back against human rights bill

Four members of Russia’s upper chamber were in Washington last week to ask Congress not to pass human rights legislation targeting Russia and to accuse the late Sergei Magnitsky, for which the legislation was named, of stealing millions through tax fraud. Russian Federation Council members Valery Snyakin, Vitaly Malkin, Alexey Shernyshev, and Alexander Savenkov were ...

Josh Rogin/Foreign Policy
Josh Rogin/Foreign Policy

Four members of Russia’s upper chamber were in Washington last week to ask Congress not to pass human rights legislation targeting Russia and to accuse the late Sergei Magnitsky, for which the legislation was named, of stealing millions through tax fraud.

Russian Federation Council members Valery Snyakin, Vitaly Malkin, Alexey Shernyshev, and Alexander Savenkov were in Washington July 7 through July 13 and met with administration and congressional officials, including Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, NSC Senior Director for Russia Alice Wells, Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Roger Wicker (R-MS), and Bob Corker (R-TN), and Rep. James McGovern (D-MA), among others.

On July 11, the visiting Russian lawmakers held a press conference at the Russian embassy to unveil their parliamentary investigation report on the case of Magnitsky, a Russian anti-corruption lawyer who died after allegedly being tortured in prison by Russian officials. Their message was that Magnitsky was guilty of tax fraud in Russia and that he died due to medical neglect, not torture.

Last month, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed the Senate version of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Act of 2012, a bill that would create a list of human rights violators all over the world and impose banking and visa restrictions on them. The bill was initially designed to punish Magnitsky’s captors. The House version still only targets Russian officials.

Before his meeting with the Russian senators, McCain told The Cable he would press the Russian lawmakers on why they are so focused on discrediting Magnitsky, who is facing criminal prosecution for tax fraud even though he has been dead for more than two years.

"I’ll ask them why they are putting a dead man on trial. That’s not a system of justice that I’m familiar with," McCain said.

In their press conference, the Russian senators spent at least 30 minutes detailing how they believe that Magnitsky worked with William Browder, the CEO of Hermitage Capital, to defraud the Russian government of $230 million in tax revenue. The senators also released extensive autopsy and investigative reports to back up their contention that Magnitsky’s death was the fault of his doctors and not Russian government or police officials.

According to that report, the doctors treating Magnitsky in prison made diagnostic errors and didn’t prescribe him the right medicines. The report also claims that Magnitsky fought his captors and therefore force had to be used to get him to obey prison orders.

"The injuries on Magnitsky’s body were most likely caused by multiple injuring impacts of a blunt object that might be possibly be a rubber baton," the report stated.

Browder told The Cable that the report was part of a new Russian strategy to seem active on the investigation of Magnitsky’s death while limiting blame to the medical staff only, rather than the government officials above them.

"From what we have seen in the last few days, the Russians are trying to change their spin from outright threats to being more ‘reasonable,’" Browder said. "They are saying things like ‘please don’t rush our investigation’ and ‘prosecutions in the Magnitsky case are beginning, we are going after the doctor."

Browder has consistently denied he and Magnitsky are guilty of tax fraud.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) has promised to join the Magnitsky bill to another bill that would grant Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations status and repeal the 1974 Jackson-Vanik law that was meant to punish the Soviet Union for preventing Jewish emigration. His committee will mark up the PNTR bill July 18.

The Obama administration opposes the Magnitsky act, although it acknowledges that with it, Congress is unlikely to grant Russia PNTR status, which is needed for U.S. businesses to take full advantage of Russia’s imminent accession to the WTO. The administration has warned that Russia will retaliate and disrupt various aspects of U.S.-Russian cooperation around the world.

Behind the scenes, GOP senators and congressional aides say, the administration is trying to water down the Magnitsky bill, for example by working to get the list of violators classified, and by trying to detach the Magnitsky bill from the PNTR legislation.

Classifying the list of violators would defeat the purpose of shaming them, McCain believes. As for the bill as a whole, "Hillary Clinton is trying to separate it completely. We’re not going to let that happen," McCain told The Cable.

Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ), told The Cable that there’s no way the GOP caucus will back off its demand to pass the Magnitsky bill as part of any move to grant Russian PNTR status.

"I think we should stand with the Russia people and it’s pretty clear that we would be helping the Russia people if we, to the extent that our pressure is meaningful at all with the Russian government, it causes them to rethink their policy of repression against the media and against lawyers like Magnitsky who are just trying to help people and do right," Kyl said. "It has to be part of the trade legislation."

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), the main sponsor of the Magnitsky bill, did not meet with the Russian delegation.  He said he was not even aware they were in town.

But Cardin told The Cable that he rejects the Russian senators’ claims that there should be no human rights sanctions on those Russian officials who were connected to the Magnitsky case.

"I think Russia should take care of these human rights violators and hold them accountable," Cardin said. "They said they would do it. It’s been over two years. They should take care of their own business."

At the press conference, the Russian senators claimed they had convinced those U.S. senators they met to alter their stance and consider the possibility of separating the Mangitsky bill from the PNTR legislation. A McCain spokesman told The Cable that’s just not the case.

"He gave them a fair hearing and will consider what they had to say, but it will be a cold day in Gila Bend, Arizona, before he changes his position on this," the McCain spokesman said.

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

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