Foreign Policy

OPINION: This act will hold corrupt regimes accountable for their crimes

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In 2008, attorney Sergei Magnitsky blew the whistle on a massive corruption scheme in his native Russia. He soon found himself detained on retaliatory tax fraud charges. Dispatched to a Soviet-era prison where he was beaten and otherwise abused, eventually he died from lack of medical attention. 

Two years later, congressional outrage at the whistleblower’s engineered demise led to passage of what is known as the Magnitsky Act, which sanctioned offending officials by preventing them from entering the U.S. and using our banking system. Following its enactment, 18 culpable officials were formally sanctioned by the U.S. under the widely heralded Magnitsky Act.

{mosads}Inspired by Magnitsky’s tragic death and mindful of iniquities spanning the range of barely nominal democracies, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) (my close friend when we both served in the House) pushed Congress to validate that political oppression by corrupt regimes is by no means limited to Russia and is a burgeoning worldwide crisis.  


Cardin’s efforts were supported by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Reps. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.). Passage last year of Cardin’s amendment to a defense bill — termed the Global Magnitsky Act — affirms that kleptocrats are now achieving their venal objectives by destroying opponents in ways not necessarily requiring violence. Corruption that is killing off more human rights than human beings is equally pernicious and must be effectively sanctioned.  

Genocide and ethnic cleansing — the familiar, blood-curdling “crimes against humanity” — often lead to charges by The Hague’s International Criminal Court, but until they are called to answer for their crimes, the despots enjoy years of freedom and the fruits of their stolen billions. However, more reflective despots learn that denial of basic rights and the naked seizure of property can destroy opponents — one by one if need be — just as effectively over time.  

Typically, this starts by hobbling reformers with a dazzling array of false charges, followed by show-trial prosecutions. This scenario allows the leaders to bypass the echoes of condemnation that follow brazen assassinations and mass disappearances. Clearly, stripping away basic constitutional protections and raiding corporations for their assets demonstrates the efficacy of replacing brick-and-mortar jails with whole nations converted, de facto, to prisons-without-walls.

Disappointing so far is that, since President Obama signed the Global Magnitsky Act last October, the worldwide community of conscience has yet to see its first sanctioning example. Although the act does authorize sanctions for murder, torture and other collective violence, the core innovation is that victims need not die to trigger the remedies. 

The act is a prime example of how the rule of law reaches beyond criminalizing heinous conduct by denying offenders U.S. benefits. A further advantage is that key U.S. allies — e.g., the U.K. and Canada — passed mirror versions of the Global Magnitsky Act, signifying that violators may soon be denied broad access to the most desired travel venues and secure banking features. 

For years, the Richardson Center for Global Engagement has pressed for the release of political prisoners — in North Korea, Iran, Sudan and Venezuela, to name a few.  Today, I proudly announce an evolution of that humanitarian focus, from the punishment of autocrats who use state institutions to oppress opponents to equally corrupt leaders whose regimes degrade democratic values by targeting opponents for ruin. 

Shortly, I will identify to congressional leaders a prime example of the corporate raiding of an innocent dissident’s assets in a former Soviet-bloc country, thereby triggering the act’s requirement that a congressional recommendation pave the way to presidential sanctioning action.

In this example of naked corporate raiding, a government chief executive, a state prosecutor and a member of parliament targeted the board chairman of one of the country’s largest banks after he supported an anti-corruption reformist movement, threatening the offenders’ tenure. In rapid succession, the bank was assaulted by an anti-terrorism SWAT team in a routine search for financial records otherwise available via request.  

After the counterterrorism style raid induced a panic run on bank deposits, officials seized the bank, declaring it insolvent (though two recent audits had found it healthy) and later liquidated its assets, parsing them to the incumbents’ claque of allies. When the chairman had the audacity to challenge the takeover in court, he found himself the subject of massive indictment alleging preposterous organized crime offenses that are absolutely without foundation. 

Even after the executive uncovered a plot to kill him, the persecution continued: His wife was charged with money laundering involving the purchase of a residence for which provably legitimate earnings provided the down payment. The executive and his wife are now effectively stateless and seeking asylum in a foreign country.

The corrupt oppression of dissidents remains a robust and — by all accounts — global threat to core human rights. I sincerely hope this article spurs the international community of conscience to avail itself of the Global Magnitsky Act’s powers. Remedies in the act provide the exact qualities that renowned Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal called for — a wave of rectitude whose hallmark is not vengeance but justice. 

Bill Richardson is the former Democratic governor of New Mexico. He was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and the secretary of energy, both during the Clinton administration. He also served in the House of Representatives. As a diplomat and special envoy, Richardson has received four Nobel Peace Prize nominations and has successfully won the release of hostages and American servicemen in North Korea, Cuba, Iraq and the Sudan.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill. 

Tags Ben Cardin Bob Corker Corruption in Russia John McCain Magnitsky Act Political corruption Prisoner abuse Russia–United States relations Sergei Magnitsky
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