US Senate panel approves Magnitsky bill

In yet another blow to US-Russian relations the US Senate committee has unanimously approved a bill imposing travel and economic sanctions against Russian officials over the 2009 death of the lawyer Sergey Magnitsky.

The Sergey Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act comes despite congressional efforts to lift the Cold War-era Jackson-Vanik amendment restricting trade with Russia.

The bill, which was approved on Tuesday by the Foreign Relations Committee, would impose visa bans and asset freezes on Russians that the US accuses of human rights violations. Specifically it targets those linked to the death of the Hermitage Capital lawyer Sergey Magnitsky, who died following mistreatment in custody in 2009.

Moscow has strongly objected to the legislation and has warned of retaliatory measures if it becomes law. Russia views the Magnitsky list as interference in its internal affairs.

Despite the Obama administration’s efforts to reset US-Russian relations, the draft enjoys strong support from both the Republicans and the Democrats. “This bill is universal,” Senator Benjamin Cardin, Democrat from Maryland, who sponsored the bill said after the vote. “It's absolutely motivated by Sergey Magnitsky, but it's universal in its application.”

A similar bill was passed by a House of Representatives committee earlier this month. The act has yet to be voted on in the full House, and will come into force only once President Obama has signed it.

The US has already barred several dozen Russian officials allegedly implicated in the death of the lawyer from the entering the country. Moscow responded last year by taking similar action against US officials accused of human rights violations.

If passed, the bill will replace the outdated Jackson-Vanik amendment passed in 1974, which barred favorable trade relations with the Soviet Union because it wouldn’t allow Jews to leave the country.

The repeal of Jackson-Vanik is necessary if US businesses want greater access to the Russian markets as Russia joins the World Trade Organization this summer.

There is clearly politicization of this process given that it’s coming at this time when President Obama is firmly on track to attempt to reset US-Russian relations, Daniel Wagner, CEO at Country Risk Solutions, told RT. “It’s becoming more difficult for him to try to achieve that with everything else that’s going on in the world.”

If this bill is passed, Russia and the United States could be in for a rocky period and could face misunderstandings and very negative attitudes on both sides, warns Martin Sieff, chief global analyst at The Globalist magazine. “This is a very irrational as well as an irresponsible measure. In practice it has nothing to do with Magnitsky,” he told RT.

He also insisted the passing of the bill would certainly harm US interests. “The need for security and law and order cooperation between the United States and Russia is absolutely pre-eminent in the world,” he stated, adding that the two countries are the two great thermonuclear powers in the world and had considerable strategic interests and concerns in common.