Argument

Abandoning Sergei Magnitsky

Why is Hillary Clinton giving up on human rights in Russia?

As Vladimir Putin settles into his third term as president, government corruption is running rampant. Putin is steadily cutting back on his people's most basic rights -- and Russians are finally saying "enough." As the opposition movement gets off the ground, international efforts to discourage Putin's government from squelching political dissent are critical. Unfortunately, however, a recent article by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signals that the United States may be preparing to forsake that role.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Clinton makes the case that Congress should repeal the Jackson-Vanik law, which was passed in the 1970s to hold the Soviet Union accountable for restrictions it placed on its citizens' right to emigrate. Her argument, however, intentionally misstates the nature of Congress's position on repealing the law. Jackson-Vanik "long ago achieved this historic purpose," Clinton writes. "Now it's time to set it aside." 

Suggesting that Jackson-Vanik's mission has concluded, or describing its repeal as a simple trade issue, is disingenuous spin. No one is opposed to repealing Jackson-Vanik on economic grounds. Everyone would welcome the increased trade that lifting the law could provide. Jackson-Vanick, however, is a law intended to promote respect for human rights in Russia. Congress is deeply opposed to repealing Jackson-Vanik without replacing it with effective human rights legislation that meets today's circumstances. Clinton, on the other hand, would apparently prefer that human rights issues not enter the conversation.

But the discussion of Jackson-Vanik cannot be separated from the increasingly authoritarian drift of Russia during Putin's 13 years in effective control of the country. Putin has methodically removed every force in society that could challenge his hold on power: He has taken control of the national television channels, destroyed all real opposition parties, and dominates the Duma, Russia's parliament. His party also effectively controls the judiciary and other branches of law enforcement -- it can obtain any ruling with only a phone call. It set up youth groups that draw their members from small towns within driving distance of Moscow and St. Petersburg, and indoctrinated its charges at state expense in outrageous nationalism, anti-Americanism, and pro-government dogma. When needed, it buses in crowds of duly indoctrinated youth to intimidate foreign diplomats, human rights defenders, and anti-corruption activists.

The Russian government's cynicism and corruption reached its pinnacle when former President Dmitry Medvedev asked Russians to come forward and fight corruption -- and a young Russian lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, did just that. He testified against a group of organized criminals and high Russian government officials who had stolen hundreds of millions of dollars from the Russian treasury. Instead of arresting the criminals, Russia's justice system turned on the messenger: Within a month, Magnitsky was imprisoned by the officials he testified against, tortured for a year, and finally beaten to death by eight officers with rubber batons in a Russian prison.

These facts are not in dispute: They are the findings of the Russian president's own Council on Human Rights, which the Russian government then chose to ignore. It was further discovered that all of the officers who Magnitsky accused amassed millions during the time he reported the theft was undertaken. This too was ignored.

Not a single official was prosecuted following Magnitsky's revelations. In fact, the same officials whom Magnitsky accused of committing the theft were put in charge of investigating it. They concluded that no money could be traced because a police truck carrying the bank records happened to explode in central Moscow, and that Magnitsky himself was the guilty party.

As Sergei Magnitsky's law partner, I remember arguing with him over whether his actions to expose the thefts were dangerous. He simply did not even consider the possibility that his government could support such criminals and that it could be personally dangerous for a citizen to come forward to defend his own Treasury. "This is the Medvedev presidency," he told me. "You are watching too many movies. This is not 1937."

Unfortunately, he was wrong. And Russians, watching his case play out in the national and international media, are increasingly coming to believe that they may very well be heading for a replay of Josef Stalin's infamous purges of 1937. That's what is at stake today: Whether the United States wishes to help avoid a historic narrowing of the rights of Russian citizens, or whether it wishes, as it did in 1937, to close its eyes to the Russian government's actions.

The Magnitsky case is proof that the Kremlin has its own interests -- interests that are categorically opposed to those of its citizens. Russians have reacted with outrage: Since Magnitsky's death, a real homegrown democratic opposition has developed in the country. The leaders of this movement have led hundreds of thousands of people in demonstrations; their words are read by millions more. People clearly want fair elections, fair courts, police who are not criminals in uniform, and officials who do not steal from, imprison, and kill their own citizens for reasons of personal gain.

Sensing a threat to its power, Putin's government has targeted the opposition for extermination. One of the first laws of Putin's third term raised the possible fines for demonstrating to more than the annual salary of most Russians.

Shortly thereafter, criminal investigations were opened and many opposition leaders had their homes searched and their computers confiscated. All of them are in danger of being named suspects for inciting extremism under these investigations, and any of them could be indicted and arrested at any moment. Putin's laws allow them to be imprisoned for years on such charges. On the day of the searches, a Twitter hashtag that translates as #Hello1937 was trending globally.

Now is a critical moment in the midst of this crackdown. The leaders of the opposition have the legal equivalent of guns at their heads, and the Russian government is contemplating how far to push things -- whether to arrest them or not.

In this environment, it should be clear why Congress is categorically opposed to repealing legislation designed to promote human rights in Russia without replacing it with something that discourages the egregious abuses going on today. New legislation should makes the Kremlin think twice about falsely imprisoning and killing those Russians who chose to stand and fight for human rights and a free press, and against corruption.

This is the real argument in Congress right now: not whether to repeal Jackson-Vanik, but what should replace it. Congress's answer is the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act. It's a simple law that says if an official uses his position to illegally arrest or harm a journalist or human rights activist, that person and his or her family will lose the privilege of traveling to the United States and keeping assets there. They will also be publicly named and shamed, and therefore they will effectively lose the ability to do business in the West.

The law would act as a powerful disincentive for officials to persecute people who are fighting for a better Russia, just as Magnitsky was. However, President Barack Obama's administration has stalled the bill and tried to water it down at every opportunity due to fears that it will upset its efforts to "reset" the U.S.-Russian relationship. Clinton's efforts to portray the repeal of Jackson-Vanik as a simple trade issue -- delinking its repeal from the passage of a new bill protecting human rights -- is just the latest administration attempt to kill the Magnitsky bill.

Secretary Clinton is being less than truthful when she frames the debate over Jackson-Vanick as a question about trade. It is not -- it is a question of human rights. Does America want to abandon its efforts to promote human rights and democracy in Russia, or does it want to preserve them? This is the real issue before Congress today.

Clinton also wrote, falsely, that Russian opposition leaders favor repealing Jackson-Vanick despite their concerns over the Magnitsky case. In fact, in one of the most embarrassing boondoggles of U.S. amb. Michael McFaul's tenure in Russia, he got opposition leaders to sign a letter supporting repeal of Jackson-Vanick -- and used it the next day in the press to claim that they support repeal of Jackson-Vanick without the passage of the Magnitsky Act. The next day, he was strongly rebuked in two editorials by leading members of the Russian opposition, who said that never in a million years would they support the idea of repealing Jackson-Vanik without first passing the Magnitsky Act.

Clinton and McFaul are afraid that complaining too loudly about the Kremlin's human rights abuses will endanger the reset. But so what? Judging by the level of U.S.-Russian cooperation on missile defense, Syria, and Iran, the two countries remain more at odds than ever -- there is no reset worth talking about. As for trade, it will go on as usual between the two countries with or without sanctions for human rights abusers.

The real issue is this: Does the United States want to base its relationship with Russia on a failed realpolitik policy that has achieved nothing, and which is clearly not in our long-term interests, or shall we stand upon American ideals? For the sake of a long-term partnership between the people of each country, the United States should place its faith in the brave Russians who are standing up to their government, not their corrupt oppressors.

OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP/Getty Images

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