On December 20, 1974, as the US Congress, over the vehement objections of President Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, passed the historic Jackson-Vanik amendment limiting trade with the USSR over its lack of the freedom to emigrate, Soviet political prisoner camps were in almost open jubilation. The United States has established a vital precedent: for the first time, economic relations with a country were linked to its human rights record.
Forty years later, the amendment is no longer relevant. But the principle carries on. On December 6, 2012, the US Senate approved the House-passed bill H.R. 6156, which simultaneously repeals Jackson-Vanik and adopts the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, which directly addresses the modern-day violations of human rights and the rule of law in the Russian Federation. The presidential signature has already been promised. “With this vote, we are setting a precedent for future trade agreements that tells the world that gross violators of human rights cannot escape the consequences of their actions even when their home country fails to act,” emphasized Senator Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat and the bill’s principal author. “Human rights cannot and should not be open to compromise.”
Sergei Magnitsky was a Moscow attorney who died in police custody in 2009 after being tortured and denied medical care. His “crime” consisted of uncovering a $230 million tax fraud scheme—the largest known in Russian history—which involved the previously seized assets of Hermitage Capital Management, an investment fund he was representing. Magnitsky’s testimony implicated several law enforcement officials. It was the same officials who placed him under arrest. More than three years after his death, not a single perpetrator has been punished: indeed, a number of Interior Ministry officials involved in this case have received promotions and awards. The most prominent investigation by Russian prosecutors involving Sergei Magnitsky has been, incredibly, the ongoing posthumous case against him.
The new US law imposes targeted visa and financial sanctions on individuals “responsible for the detention, abuse, or death of Sergei Magnitsky,” as well as for “extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights” in Russia, which include “the freedoms of religion, expression, association, and assembly, and the rights to a fair trial and democratic elections.” The expanding provision of the law is especially important: the story of Sergei Magnitsky, alas, is not a one-off tragedy, but symptomatic of the general situation in Putin’s Russia, where politically motivated “justice,” state-sanctioned extortion, wrongful imprisonment, police abuse, media censorship, suppression of peaceful assembly, and electoral fraud have long become a horrendous norm.
The Magnitsky Act ends the impunity for those who continue to violate the rights and freedoms of Russian citizens and to treat state coffers as their personal pockets. It is no secret that many Kremlin officials and oligarchs who prefer the style of Belarus or Zimbabwe at home are opting for the West when it comes to their bank accounts, vacation homes, and schools for their children. Nothing will strike at the heart of Putin’s corrupt and autocratic “power vertical” more than the realization that even its boss—with all his patronage and oil money—will no longer be able to protect the ill-gotten gains.
This is, without doubt, the most pro-Russian law to have ever been passed by a Western country.