Senate advances Russia rights bill

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday reported out a Russian human rights bill over some objections from Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.).



The Sergei Magnitsky bill, named after a Russia whistle-blower who died in a Russian jail, passed by a unanimous voice vote.

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It is set to be linked to must-pass trade legislation next month. 



In an usual scene, the committee added an amendment to the bill with only Kerry voicing a “nay” vote against the amendment.


That amendment, by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) tries to prevent the Obama administration from keeping the names of human rights abusers secret.



Kerry had encouraged Cardin to withdraw the amendment but Cardin insisted on a vote.   



His measure would force the administration to justify whenever it keeps classified the names of abusers it would otherwise slap with visa bans and financial sanctions.

Kerry has said the “scope” of the justification could impair national security by disseminating information widely to members of Congress, who could leak the information to the public. 

"We all take oaths not to share classified information," Cardin replied.

Kerry said he wished he could be so "sanguine" about members not leaking information. But Kerry then allowed the vote, which he lost. 


Kerry said he was allowing a markup but expected Cardin to work with him to change the bill before it comes to the floor. 



“I don’t view this as a completely finished product,” he said.



After the meeting, Kerry said one of the things he is concerned about is language in the bill that allows the U.S. to sanction human rights abuses outside of Russia. 


Kerry said the issues would not delay floor consideration for long. Cardin agreed to work with the chairman.

The Maryland senator said afterwards he believes Kerry is trying to make the bill workable and ultimately supports global application, even though the administration has been opposed.



Kerry, whom many see as a potential secretary of State in a second Obama administration, is consulting closely with the White House on the bill.

USA*Engage and the National Foreign Trade Council, two related business groups, criticized the passage of the bill.

“What began as a protest against a horrifying human rights violation has unfortunately led to the creation of yet another unilateral U.S. sanctions regime,” said USA*Engage Director Richard Sawaya. “The legislation approved today goes far beyond holding those who harmed Magnitsky accountable, with its call to address human rights violations ‘anywhere in the world.’ Passing such legislation will have serious political and diplomatic implications.”

During the markup, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) withdrew an amendment he had planned to offer which would have sunsetted the bill after five years. He said he realized the amendment would not pass in committee and would try to work on the issue when the bill comes to the floor.

He also said he is worried about the bill applying to abuses beyond Russia.  

Big business lobbyists were successful in getting a House version of the bill limited to Russia only. Cardin said after the markup he fully expects the House to adopt the Senate's broader language in an eventual compromise.

In a related development, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has been pushing the Magnitsky bill, on Tuesday wrote to the administration asking it to investigate a group of Russians known as the Klyuev Group for possible sanctions. 

Documents released on Tuesday by Hermitage Capital Management, Magnitsky's former employer, suggest wide-ranging criminal activities by this group, including the murder of Magnitsky, that could qualify it as a sanctionable international criminal organization under existing U.S. law.

— This story was updated at 7:42 p.m.

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