Foreign and Defense Policy, Europe and Russia

Can the Magnitsky list live up to its potential?

Vladimir Putin outside the Kremlin on Victory Day in 2005

Photo Credit: www.kremlin.ru

On Friday, the Treasury Department disclosed the names of 18 Russian officials who will be subjected to asset freezes and visa bans under the Magnitsky Act. Sixteen of these officials were complicit in the prosecution and death of whistle-blowing lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. The remaining two are Chechens; one connected to the death of a critic of Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov and the other widely suspected of murdering US journalist Paul Klebnikov. Russia’s retaliation? A list of 18 Americans now banned from Russia that includes AEI’s John Yoo. To this he joked, “Darn, there goes my judo match with Putin.”

In comparison to the 280 Russian human rights violators that Congressman Jim McGovern submitted to the Obama administration earlier this month, the approved list of merely a dozen and a half low- and mid-level Russian bureaucrats disappointed human rights defenders. Yet with any luck, the appearance of two Chechens for reasons unrelated to Magnitsky’s death indicates that the administration is prepared to include additional Russian officials involved in other instances of human rights abuse. This is consistent with both the letter and spirit of the Sergei Magnitsky Act.

That said, although the administration did comply with a congressionally-mandated deadline to release the Magnitsky list by April 13, recent events have served to highlight President Obama’s refusal to publicly condemn the Putin regime for its human rights violations and rapid democratic regression over the last year. Obama didn’t say a word when the Russian authorities canceled their investigation of Magnitsky’s death. And he has remained silent during the ongoing posthumous trial to convict Magnitsky on bogus, politically motivated tax evasion charges. In response to the hundreds of recent NGO raids by the Russian police, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has publicly criticized the Kremlin’s attack on civil society. From Obama, not a peep.

During his recent trip to Russia, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon hand-delivered a personal letter from Obama to Putin. This letter should have reaffirmed a US commitment to human rights and democratic values while also stressing Obama’s intention to use the Magnitsky Act as a tool to uphold this commitment. Instead, senior foreign policy adviser to Putin Yuri Ushkov received only “positive signals” from Obama’s message. Even more telling, just three days after the release of the Magnitsky list, Obama accepted an invitation from Putin to hold a bilateral summit in Russia this fall. Will the Magnitsky list become an effective and enduring mechanism to hold the Putin regime accountable for human rights abuses? Don’t hold your breath.

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