WASHINGTON, December 11 (By Carl Schreck for RIA Novosti) - The United States has shrugged off Russian legislation that would punish Americans for alleged human rights violations in response to the Magnitsky Act, a bill passed by the US Senate last week that would slap sanctions on Russian officials accused of rights abuses.
“Of course, Russia can make its own decisions about who can or cannot travel there,” a US State Department official told RIA Novosti in emailed comments on Monday. “We have not seen the pending legislation, but unfortunately we suspect it has little to do with bringing justice to Mr. Magnitsky.”
The Russian bill was introduced in the country’s lower house of parliament Monday as a tit-for-tat retaliation for the US legislation named after Russian whistleblower lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in mysterious circumstances in a Moscow jail three years ago after accusing a group of law-enforcement officials of involvement in a $230 million tax rebate scam.
Magnitsky faces posthumous prosecution by Russian authorities on allegations of tax fraud.
“We continue to call upon Russia to investigate, prosecute and punish those responsible for the crimes committed against Sergei Magnitsky, and to cease the unjust and unprecedented posthumous prosecution of Magnitsky,” the State Department official said.
The US Magnitsky Act, which was tied to a landmark law normalizing trade relations with Moscow, would punish Russian officials suspected of abuses with visa bans and asset freezes. US President Barack Obama said last week he will sign the bill into law.
The Russian legislation introduced Monday follows repeated promises by the country’s top officials that Moscow would respond to the Magnitsky Act with symmetrical measures.
Russian health authorities on Friday, however, announced new restrictions on US pork and beef imports containing traces of a livestock feed additive, raising concerns in Washington that Russia’s retaliation could target American businesses as well.
“The timing certainly doesn’t appear to be coincidental,” Nick Giordano, vice president of the National Pork Producers Council in Washington, told RIA Novosti on Monday. “We’re very disappointed in the Russian action, and we’re hopeful we can have a quick resolution that will allow trade to continue.”
The restrictions would target US pork and beef products containing the feed additive ractopamine, which promotes leanness in livestock. The US Food and Drug Administration has declared the additive safe at acceptable levels, as has the United Nations’ main food safety body.
Russia’s Federal Consumer Protection Service has been accused in the past of using import bans as a political weapon, most notably a 2006 ban on Georgian wine. But the head of the agency, Gennady Onishchenko, has denied that the move against US meat was motivated by politics.
US government officials and trade groups said they expect Russia to abide by its obligations as a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO), which it joined in August.
“We have had ongoing discussions with the Russian government on the need to base its decisions on food safety and public health on scientific information and international standards, consistent with its WTO commitments,” the US State Department official told RIA Novosti on Monday.
US Trade Representative Ron Kirk’s chief agricultural negotiator, Isi Siddiqui, is slated to raise the issue in meetings with Russian officials this week during a trip to Moscow, Kirk’s office told RIA Novosti.
White House international economic affairs adviser Michael Froman could also be part of the US delegation, Reuters reported.
The US Meat Export Federation said in a statement Monday that while it does not comment on “ongoing government-to-government discussions,” it is “confident that a science-based solution to the disagreement over testing and certification can be found quickly so that exports of U.S. beef and pork to Russia can resume in the near future.”