WASHINGTON, December 14 (RIA Novosti) - US President Barack Obama on Friday signed into law the Magnitsky Act, a bill punishing Russian officials for alleged human rights violations that US lawmakers attached to a landmark trade bill normalizing trade relations with Moscow.
The aspects of the law targeting Russian officials, which simultaneously repeals the Cold War-era Jackson-Vanik law, has angered the Kremlin, which says it is an attempt by the United States to interfere in Russia’s internal affairs.
The law calls on the White House to draw up a list of Russian officials deemed by Washington to be complicit in rights abuses. These officials will then be banned from obtaining US visas and have their US assets frozen.
The Russian Foreign Ministry issued an angry statement Friday in response to the new US law, calling the linking of the human rights legislation to the trade bill “cynical.”
The statement also made reference to the Obama administration’s original reluctance to attach the Magnitsky Act to the trade legislation, an effort that had overwhelming bipartisan support in the US Congress.
“We regret that a US administration declaring its commitment to the development of stable and constructive bilateral relations was unable to defend its stated position against those who look to the past and see our country not as a partner, but rather an opponent—fully in line with the canons of the Cold War,” the ministry said in the statement.
Moscow has promised to impose analogous restrictions against US officials in response to the law.
On Friday, the lower house of the Russian parliament gave preliminary approval to a draft law penalizing US nationals involved in violating the rights of Russian citizens.
With Obama’s signing of the new law Friday, the United States formally established permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) with Russia. The upgrade in trade relations comes on the heels of Moscow’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in August.
In line with its WTO obligations, Washington was required to enact PNTR with Russia in order to afford US producers the maximum economic benefit of operating on the Russian market.
In the run-up to the law’s enactment, a broad consensus had formed on the PNTR issue among US officials, businesses and industry lobbies, who say the US economy stands to benefit greatly from opening up the Russian market to American entrepreneurs.
The White House, however, had sought to keep the issues of PNTR and the repeal of Jackson-Vanick separate from the Magnitsky Act—a position widely seen as an attempt to prevent the Magnitsky legislation from negatively impacting US-Russian cooperation on issues such as counterterrorism and arms reduction.
The newly signed US law was named in part for whistleblowing lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in a Moscow jail three years ago.
Magnitsky was arrested on tax fraud charges after accusing a group of Russian officials of embezzling $230 million of state money. He died after 11 months in pretrial detention.
Magnitsky’s death was officially blamed on his health problems, but the Kremlin’s own human rights council said in 2011 that he was severely beaten hours before dying, and Magnitsky’s supporters claim the case against him was fabricated in revenge for his exposes.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday criticized the US bill as a “purely political, unfriendly act.”
He expressed regret over Magnitsky’s death but said the investigation is ongoing and it is “still unclear who is right and who is wrong.”
“Frankly speaking, I don’t understand,” Putin said. “This is most likely a domestic political intrigue. But I don’t understand why Russian-US relations should be sacrificed for some domestic political gain,” Putin said.