July 26, 2011 7:15 pm

US tones down action on Russia

The US state department has banned a number of Russian officials from entering the US, in a compromise aimed at heading off legislation that would have imposed broader sanctions on Moscow for human rights violations.

In a memo sent to selected US lawmakers who were sponsoring the legislation, known as the Magnitsky Act, the US administration sought to convince them that the bill was unnecessary, saying many of the Russian officials targeted were already ineligible for visas. The bill is named after Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer working for a US company who died in prison in 2009, but would ban Russian officials suspected in a number of other human rights violations.

“Secretary [Hillary] Clinton has taken steps to ban individuals associated with the wrongful death of Sergei Magnitsky from travelling to the United States” said the administration memo, which added that US law already prevented the state department from giving visas to individuals suspected of human rights violations.

Were the Magnitsky Act to pass, the Russian government had warned Washington that it would retaliate “asymmetrically”, possibly by slashing transit of Nato supplies to Afghanistan through Russian territory, or by ending co-operation on sanctions against Iran, North Korea and Libya, the US administration had warned legislators.

Moscow is understood to be concerned at the wide scope of the bill, which is aimed at Russian officials involved in torture, murder and wrongful detention in 22 other cases named in the text, which “illustrate the grave danger of exposing the wrongdoing of officials of the Government of the Russian Federation”, according to the text of the legislation.

The cases include those of journalist Oleg Kashin, who was beaten last year, Anna Politkovskaya, a reporter who was murdered in 2006, and human rights worker Natalia Estemirova, murdered in Chechnya in 2009.

The only Russian official named in the bill is Ramzan Kadyrov, the president of Chechnya, widely accused of human rights abuses. The bill has been expanded to include not just travel bans, but asset freezes as well.

Mr Magnitsky, who worked for Hermitage Capital, once the largest portfolio investor in Russia, was imprisoned in 2008 after he accused police officers of carrying out a $230m tax fraud, and refused to withdraw the charges. He died in November 2009 after nearly a year in prison, during which he was denied urgent medical care. Human rights groups say his treatment was tantamount to torture and murder by police.

A US congressional staff member said that the administration’s objections to the Magnitsky Act would be taken into account, but would not end their efforts to pass the bill. “This is more like likely to provoke discussion of the bill than to end it,” he said.

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