Cardin-McCain whistleblower bill could be a threat to U.S.-Russian ties

As the White House feverishly lobbies the Senate to approve a long-stalled nuclear-arms treaty, a bipartisan bill seeking answers in the suspicious death of a Russian attorney could escalate tensions between Washington and Moscow. 

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) as co-sponsor, introduced the Justice for Sergei Magnitsky Act of 2010 just before lawmakers went home to campaign this fall. Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.) has offered companion legislation in the House.

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The legislation comes as the Obama administration urges senators to vote for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said last week should not be approved in the lame-duck session. The U.S.-Russia arms treaty needs 67 votes to be ratified. 

Cardin, the chairman of the Helsinki Commission, told The Hill in a sit-down interview that his bill is critical to drawing attention to growing human-rights concerns in the former Soviet Union, where whistleblowers and journalists find themselves under increasing threats. 

“We want Russia to act. We don’t want to act,” he said. “I hope my bill never needs to be passed. I hope Russia will do the right thing.”

But if it doesn’t, Cardin added, his measure is there to “deny the privileges of our country to those who have violated the public trust.” 

The legislation calls for the State Department to revoke visas and slap financial sanctions on those individuals involved in Magnitsky’s death until Russia has thoroughly investigated the incident and “brought the Russian criminal justice system into compliance with international legal standards.”

Magnitsky was representing Hermitage Capital Management on tax charges when he allegedly unraveled a massive corruption scheme that wove in police, judiciary and Interior Ministry officials, the Russian Mafia and others. 

He was arrested in November 2008, and nearly a year later — days before officials would no longer be able to hold him without trial — Magnitsky died in his cell at age 37. Prison officials said he had a heart attack, though a damning report by an independent oversight commission in Moscow found “psychological and physical pressure was exerted upon him,” with one commissioner even suggesting “premeditated murder” was involved.

Russia fired several prison officials connected to the case, but promoted several investigators who put Magnitsky behind bars.

“In the Magnitsky case it was a clear situation where you had a whistleblower talking about public corruption and where the government said, ‘Gee, we should really do something about it.’ Next thing you know he’s arrested, put in prison, not given the type of care he needed, and he dies,” Cardin said. “And then they say, ‘Oh, we’re going to do a thorough investigation.’ First thing you see is the people that are involved in his tragedy are promoted.”

Cardin said he believes the State Department is “sympathetic to the concerns,” though he hasn’t received a specific response to the legislation from the administration.

Early in 2009, the Obama administration vowed to hit the “reset button” with Russia and use stronger ties with Moscow for aims such as reining in Iran at the U.N. Security Council.

“We share Sen. Cardin’s deep concern over the death of Sergey Magnitsky,” a State Department official told The Hill when asked to comment on the bill. “We continue to call for the Russian authorities to prosecute all responsible for Mr. Magnitsky’s death and protect the fundamental rights of all, including those in prison. The State Department regularly raises this case in public and in private.”

Cardin and Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), a co-sponsor of McGovern’s Magnitsky bill, addressed the issue on Capitol Hill last week when they premiered a film documenting the case on the one-year anniversary of the lawyer’s death.

Kremlin opponent and former Russian Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov spoke at the Washington event Tuesday. As he landed back in Moscow on Friday, Nemtsov was attacked at the airport by members of the Nashi, a pro-Kremlin youth group.

“These people should be able to speak the truth here, and in their home countries, without fearing retribution,” Cardin said in a statement condemning the attack.

Cardin told The Hill that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has made the right statements condemning attacks on journalists — 32 have been murdered in Russia since 1993 — but they’re not translating into change.

“And certainly in regards to Mr. [Vladimir] Putin, he has been less than sympathetic on the human-rights agenda,” he said of the prime minister, who has hinted of a presidential run again in 2012.

“These individuals should be protected, not harassed, arrested and ultimately lose their lives,” Cardin said of whistleblowers such as Magnitsky. The Kremlin, he said, doesn’t “seem to really advance their commitments under Helsinki as it relates to fighting corruption, protecting journalists and advancing human rights.”

Cardin stressed, though, that he’s a big supporter of the START nuclear-arms treaty and of a “constructive relationship with Russia.”

“You can be a friend of a country and still be critical of the way that they’re handling certain issues, and that’s what I hope the president of the United States has done,” he said.

The senator doesn’t anticipate that his bill will get a hearing in the lame-duck session, and is prepared to file it again next year.

“Our objective is for Russia to take action,” Cardin said. “Not for other countries to take action. We want Russia to change its ways.”