What the Magnitsky Act Means
The American Interest
by David J. Kramer and Lilia Shevtsova
Sergei Magnitsky was a 37-year-old lawyer who was beaten, deprived of vital medical attention, and left to die in a Russian prison nearly a year after uncovering a massive fraud allegedly committed by Russian officials to the tune of $230 million. The very people whom Magnitsky implicated in the fraud arrested him in 2008; a year after his murder, several of these officials were promoted and awarded, adding insult to the fatal injury inflicted on Magnitsky.
Magnitsky’s client, Hermitage Capital head Bill Browder, launched a full-court press to seek justice for his lawyer in the West in the absence of any possibility for justice inside Russia. Browder recounted Magnitsky’s riveting story to members of the U.S. Congress and anyone else who would listen. Fortunately, two Congressmen, Senator Ben Cardin (D–MD) and Representative Jim McGovern (D–MA), did listen, and they followed up by leading the campaign to adopt the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, which was approved by the House in a 365–43 vote November 16, and by the Senate with an equally bipartisan landslide (92-4) on December 6. The Act will deny visas to and freeze the assets of those in the Russian ruling elite implicated in Magnitsky’s murder and other human rights violations and corruption. Various polls in Russia show support for the legislation by a ratio of more than two-to-one among those familiar with it. In targeting sanctions against corrupt and abusive Russian officials as opposed to the whole country, the Act resonates with the many Russians who are fed up with these kinds of problems in their country. The next critical step is to get European countries to adopt similar measures, which would have an even greater impact on those Russians who like to travel and do business in Europe.
There will likely be international ramifications to the approval of the Magnitsky Act —especially if it gets applied to other abusive officials elsewhere around the world; Senator Cardin strongly supports such an extension of the law’s reach. The Act is also bound to influence the Russian-American relationship—if not today, then in the future. If not implemented aggressively, the legislation risks ending up as yet another piece in the “Let’s Pretend” game that the West has long been playing with Russia and other authoritarian states. (Indeed some hope for this outcome.) This would expose the deep crisis affecting the Western world and signal a victory for the forces of authoritarian corruption seeking to demoralize Western society. The U.S. Congress must see to it that the Obama Administration implements the legislation in a serious manner.
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