Washington Bureau

01.17.14

Congress Presses Obama On Russia Sanctions

On Friday, key senators pressed the Obama administration to crack down on Russian human rights violators.

Four leading senators Friday called on President Obama to enforce U.S. law and sanction more Russian human right violators, despite the administration’s reluctance to rock the U.S.-Russian relationship.

Last month, the Obama administration declined to add names to a list of human rights violators in Russia created by Congress under the Magnitsky Act. The act is named in honor oof Sergei Maginitsky, a Russian anti-corruption lawyer who died in prison after being tortured after being arrested on charges widely viewed as politically motivated.

The decision not to add new names to the Magnitsky list came as a shock to lawmakers and human rights advocates, who had been told the State Department and Treasury Department were vetting several alleged Russian human rights abusers for addition to the list, an action that would subject them to visa bans and asset freezes.

Late Friday, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and the ranking member, Bob Corker (R-TN) invoked a section of the Magnitsky Act that allows senior lawmakers to submit names to the administration for the list on a bipartisan basis.  Sens. Ben Cardin (D-MD) and John McCain (R-AZ), the bill's original co-sponsors, supported the move. The Obama adminstration is ultimately responsible for accepting or rejecting these recomendations to add names to the list. 

“On December 20, 2013, we received the Department of State’s first annual report. Disappointingly and contrary to repeated assurances and expectations, this report indicates that no persons have been added to the Magnitsky list since April 2013 and does not provide adequate details on the administration’s efforts to encourage other governments to impose similar targeted sanctions,” the senators wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew. “We look forward to your response to our request and hope you will also clarify when we can expect additional names to be added to the Magnitsky list as well as specific administration efforts to encourage other governments to adopt legislation similar to the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012.”

Menendez and Corker suggested two specific names for the administration to add to the list: Alexander Bastrykin, former First Deputy Prosecutor General of Russia and former Chairman of the Investigative Committee of the Prosecutor General’s Office and Dmitry Klyuev, the alleged kingpin of a Russian organized crime group. Both figures were already investigated and determined eligible for the list, according to Congressional sources.

In addition, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), the chairman of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission (formerly known as the Congressional Human Rights Caucus), is also demanding the administration explain why it decided not to add any new names to the Magnitsky list this year.

The Daily Beast also obtained the implementation report which the State Department sent to Congress in December. The report revealed the fact the administration was not adding any new names to the list. It simply states that the State Department has been encouraging European governments to adopt similar visa and financial sanctions against those Russians the U.S. has already sanctioned.

On Dec. 20, Corker wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry that the U.S. should not balk on sanctioning Russian human rights violators in favor of focusing on cooperation with Russia on other issues, such as diplomacy regarding the Syrian civil war and the Iranian nuclear program.

“I understand the administration may be concerned that an expansion of the Magnitsky list could undermine that cooperation,” Corker wrote. “But the Magnitsky Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama. We are all, therefore, obligated to ensure its full implementation.” 

Cardin recently introduced a bill to expand the law to apply human rights violators across the world, not just Russia.