New Bill With Bipartisan Support Would Blacklist Group of Russian Abusers

Magnitsky Act would freeze the assets of over 60 Russians. Why is the White House against it?

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For months, freezing wind blew through an overcrowded, smoky jail cell where Sergei Magnitsky was being tortured and held. Magnitsky, a Russian attorney who revealed the largest alleged tax-refund fraud in the country's history, was held in conditions so poor, he contracted gallstones. Despite appealing for medical attention on 20 separate occasions, he was never treated. [Check it Out: Today in Photos From U.S. News & World Report.]

After being relocated to multiple prisons, being poorly fed (if at all) and enduring deplorable conditions for nearly a year, Magnitsky died on Nov. 16, 2009, shortly after eight riot troopers handcuffed him to a bed and beat him with rubber batons.

William Browder, the Chief Executive Officer of Hermitage Capital Management, has recounted the horrifying tale repeatedly in senators' and representatives' offices across Capitol Hill in an effort to pass legislation that would blacklist all of those responsible for Magnitsky's death.

Magnitsky worked as Browder's lawyer at Hermitage, when he discovered $230 million in taxes the company paid were embezzled in an elaborate scheme by police, government officials, bankers and the Russian mafia. Magnitsky researched the crimes and testified against those involved and six weeks later was arrested. Browder estimates more than 60 people were involved in his death, from the guards who beat him to the ring of government officials  who were responsible for his capture and imprisonment. [See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 campaign.]

Tuesday, Browder could claim a small victory as the Senate Foreign Relations committee unanimously passed the Magnitsky Act, a bill that will impose sanctions on the dozens of officials who were responsible for the detention, death and abuse of the Russian lawyer, freeze any assets the Russian officials held in the United States and ban them from entering the country.

"This clears the major hurdle into making the Magnitsky Act into a law," Browder said, "The Obama administration has been using Senator Kerry, the chairman of the foreign relations committee as their proxy to block the progress of the bill. Now that it is through his committee, the probability of the law passing a full senate vote has increased dramatically."

While the legislation has had overwhelming support in both the House and the Senate, the Obama administration has discouraged Congress from making such a strong statement against Russian officials as it tries to forge a stronger relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"The administration as an institution didn't want it to happen," Browder said. "I wouldn't blame the administration as being specifically immoral. Every executive body of every country in the world doesn't want to pick a fight with the Russians. Putin has been going around threatening everybody on this."

To secure the passage of the Magnitsky bill, leaders in Congress have become a thorn in the administration's side, threatening not to pass permanent normal trade relations with Russia unless the administration promises to pass the human rights bill at the same time.

Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, a steadfast supporter of the bill, said the administration has tried repeatedly to water down the legislation, but said it had an "excellent" chance of passing the Senate despite the administration's aversion to it.

Now with the Magnitsky Act expected to pass in the Senate and already cleared in the House committee, Browder is steps away from seeing justice for his friend and colleague he never could secure in Russia.

"We expected that despite of whatever corruption existed, the human rights abuses and infractions were so obvious that the Russian government would have to prosecute the people who killed Sergei," Browder says. "We are now two and a half years after his death and not a single person has been prosecuted."

Browder himself was blacklisted from Russia in 2005 after uncovering a network of corrupt Russian companies and money laundering schemes. Hermitage's offices in Moscow were raided in 2007 and Browder says the police seized all the certificates, stamps and seals to re-register the companies, forge fake liabilities, and create what Browder calls "collusive court judgements against [the] companies."