Pass the Magnitsky bill

The Magnitsky bill, named after a lawyer for a U.K.-based investment fund who died an agonizing death in a Russian prison after being denied medical treatment, is wending its way slowly through Congress.

It would establish a blacklist of Russians allegedly involved in Sergei Magnitsky’s shocking death in 2009, presumably including Russian law enforcement officials, tax ministry officials and judges, as well as intelligence officers and Russians linked to organized crime, who would notably be denied U.S. visas. Magnitsky, a lawyer for the equity fund Hermitage Capital, uncovered an embezzlement scandal totaling $230 million by Russian tax and interior ministry officials, and was then imprisoned on charges of tax evasion and fraud for his pains.

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The Obama administration wanted the House bill, which only targeted Russian human-rights violators, to be watered down to avoid a diplomatic rift with Moscow. Both the House and Senate — where Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) is the original sponsor — initially pushed to have the list of names made public in order to shame the offenders. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month expanded the bill to include human-rights violators elsewhere in an attempt to defuse the direct penalties against Moscow — but that would seem impossible to enforce. House Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) is expected to bring the bill before his committee later this month.

Russian officials are particularly upset about this bill, which could be linked to the lifting of the Cold War-era Jackson-Vanik amendment conditioning free trade with Russia on Soviet emigration.

But there is a principle here at stake: If Russia wants American investment, it should play by the rules. The Magnitsky case involves a company founded by American-born William Browder, and American money. There have been too many murky and mysterious deaths in Russia — never mind the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in central London — which have never been solved under Vladimir Putin. Congress should pass this bill as soon as possible in order to raise the pressure on Russian authorities to bring the killers and torturers of the 37-year-old Magnitsky to justice.