Dem lawmaker not afraid of Russian threats over human-rights legislation

Threats of retaliation won't deter Congress from moving forward with legislation slapping travel and financial restrictions on Russian officials accused of human-rights violations, Sen. Ben Cardin, the bill's sponsor, tells The Hill.

“We've heard this before,” Cardin (D-Md.) said of comments this week by Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, who warned of “repercussions” if the proposed legislation becomes law.

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“This is an issue that's important for Russia. Our legislation just tells Russia to do what is right in their own country,” Cardin said. “We're not asking them to do anything other than adhere to basic international human-rights standards.”

Putin spokesman Yuri Ushakov said Russia would “very much like to avoid” the legislation during a press briefing previewing Putin’s meeting with President Obama during the G-20 summit in Mexico next month, according to The Washington Post. “But if this new anti-Russian law is adopted, then of course that demands measures in response,” Ushakov said, according to the Post.

A Senate aide dismissed the heightened Russian rhetoric as a sign that the bill — named after Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who was arrested on fraud charges and died in custody three years ago after accusing tax officials of a $230 million fraud — has a good shot of passing.

“The substance of the threats aren’t really new,” said the aide. “They might be getting louder as the Magnitsky bill gets closer to becoming law, but the threats are all the same. The reality is that coming to the United States is a privilege and if someone has engaged in activities that are against the rule of law and human rights, the United States will take what actions it has available to it even if others choose not to act.”

The bill would impose penalties on anyone “responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture, or other human rights violations committed against individuals seeking to promote human rights or to expose illegal activity carried out by officials of the government of the Russian Federation,” according to a summary. The bill requires the State Department to publish a list of such people, who would be barred from traveling to the United States and would have their U.S. property transactions frozen and prohibited.

The bill also targets officials involved in Magnitsky’s detention and death.

The Magnitsky bill aims to give Congress a way to retain a mechanism to pressure Russia on human rights after the United States establishes normal trade relations with Russia, which is supposed to happen this July following Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization. The bill would replace the Jackson-Vanik amendment, Cold War-era legislation that denied favored-nation status to certain countries that restrict emigration.

The bill has 34 co-sponsors in the Senate. In the House, it's championed by Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.) and has 24 co-sponsors.

The White House has expressed concerns with the bill, but Cardin said he thinks it will pass. He said the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is expected to take up the bill next month, in tandem with the Senate Finance Committee's consideration of legislation granting Russia permanent normal trade relations.

“I think that the Magnitsky bill probably enjoys more support than the permanent normal trade relations for Russia,” Cardin said. “So we look at the combination of the two helping to pass the permanent normal trade relations.”

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