Yesterday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee postponed its vote on the landmark Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, in what is hopefully only a minor setback in the astounding campaign to bring justice to the tormenters and murderers of Magnitsky. This came only two weeks after the House Committee on Foreign Affairs unanimously approved the bill, clearing the path for the proposed legislation to come to a vote in the House. One suspects that this delay, requested by Senator Jim Webb (D-VA), is a consequence of the quiet battle between the White House and Congress over the legislation, which the Obama administration had feared would stymie their much-vaunted “Reset” policy.
Unluckily for Obama—but luckily for dissidents—it doesn’t look like there’s anything that can stop the Magnitsky bill from passing now. The bill has near unanimous support in Congress, and it would be politically impossible for President Obama to veto human rights legislation on this scale.
For readers who are not aware of his case, Sergei Magnitsky was an attorney employed to represent Hermitage Capital, who uncovered an elaborate ruse by government officials whereby Hermitage companies were fraudulently re-registered and used to apply for a tax refund of $230 million. Magnitsky went public with his accusations, and was subsequently pressured into confessing to the theft of the $230 million, and imprisoned without trial in November 2008. During his detention, Magnitsky’s 20 written petitions for medical attention were ignored, and he was left untreated for medical conditions which eventually led to an agonising death—allegedly hastened by torture– on November 16, 2009.
The case was subsequently subjected to an extensive cover-up, and the Russian government has not addressed the allegations regarding his treatment or imprisonment in any serious way. Since then, Hermitage CEO Bill Browder has made it his mission to bring justice to the people who imprisoned, tortured and murdered Sergei, and activist congressmen sympathetic to his cause have made his plight a top-tier issue on Capitol Hill.
Putin spokesman Yury Ushakov has threatened retaliation against the US if this supposedly “anti-Russian” bill passes. These threats, combined with the administration’s commitment to the quixotic “Reset,” apparently convinced the administration that the Magnitsky bill did not serve its interests. If and when the bill passes, it will stand as an embarrassing rebuke to an administration that has preferred buzzword foreign policy to supporting the Magnitskys of the world.