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Bridget Johnson

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December 6, 2012 - 2:05 pm

The Senate today passed the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, but President Obama’s praise of the bipartisan work on the bill included no mention of the Russian whistleblower whose bill has brought scorn and threats from the Kremlin.

The bill punishing Russian officials involved in human rights violations was attached to a repeal of the 1974 Jackson-Vanik Amendment, establishing permanent normal trade relations with Russia and Moldova.

It passed the House on Nov. 16, 365-43. Today’s vote was 92-4.

The “no” votes were Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

The Russian Foreign Ministry, angered over the part of the bill dedicated to the Russian attorney who died behind bars in 2009 after uncovering perhaps the biggest corruption scandal in the government’s history, called the Senate’s approval “a performance in the Theater of the Absurd.”

“Either Washington has forgotten what year it is or it thinks that the Cold War is not over yet,” the ministry said in a statement. “We must again remind the hyperactive opponents of the normal development of Russian-US relations that their efforts look pathetic. However, the Russian side will have to respond.”

Reset-minded Obama responded to the bill in what seemed to be aiming for a way to least aggravate Russia.

“I commend the House and Senate for working on a bipartisan basis to pass legislation to end the application of the Jackson-Vanik amendment to Russia and Moldova, allowing me to extend Permanent Normal Trade Relations to both countries. I look forward to receiving and signing this legislation,” he said in a statement that cited the number of the bill, not the title including Magnitsky’s name.

“The legislation will ensure that American businesses and workers are able to take full advantage of the WTO rules and market access commitments that the United States worked so hard to negotiate. We are also one step closer to realizing job-creating export opportunities and leveling the playing field for American workers, farmers, ranchers, and service providers,” Obama said. “My Administration will continue to work with Congress and our partners to support those seeking a free and democratic future for Russia and promote the rule of law and respect for human rights around the world.”

The State Department issued a similar statement not mentioning Magnitsky.

Levin said yesterday that he opposed the bill because the human-rights language wasn’t broad enough.

“The Magnitsky language before us is not the Magnitsky language adopted by our Finance and Foreign Relations committees. Their Magnitsky language applied the same sanctions to human rights violators wherever they might be – whether in Russia, or Syria, or Sudan, or North Korea, or China, or in any other country,” he said of the legislation to require that human rights violators in Russia be identified, denied U.S. visas, and have their U.S. assets frozen.

“Applying the sanctions contained in this bill solely to Russians, as the House version does, not only diminishes a universal value. Because it adds a political twist, it will stoke a nationalistic response in Russia,” Levin argued. “If this bill does not apply the same rule to all human rights violators, if it singles out Russian human rights violators, President Putin will no doubt appeal to the nationalistic passions of many Russians by saying that our bill isn’t aimed at protecting human rights, but is aimed at Russia. We should not hand President Putin that argument.”

Supporters of the bill hailed it as a “milestone in the search for justice for Sergei Magnitsky” and others like him.

“With this vote, we are setting a precedent for future trade agreements that tells the world that gross violators of human rights cannot escape the consequences of their actions even when their home country fails to act. Human rights cannot and should not be open to compromise,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.).

“Today marks a historic achievement for the cause of human rights and rule of law in Russia,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.). “By passing the Magnitsky Act, the Senate has lived up to its own best tradition of standing in solidarity with those struggling for freedom and justice in the world. Scoop Jackson would be proud.”

“The Magnitsky Act is a simple, straightforward call for justice,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.). “It signals to the world that America will uphold its commitment to the protection of human rights and the rule of law. PNTR with Russia in an important vehicle for American trade, and it should serve as a reminder for our country’s role in promoting the advancement of human rights.”

Bridget Johnson is a career journalist whose news articles and opinion columns have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe. Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor at The Hill, where she wrote The World from The Hill column on foreign policy. Previously she was an opinion writer and editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. She has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, National Review Online, Politico and more, and has myriad television and radio credits as a commentator. Bridget is Washington Editor for PJ Media.
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