- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 11, 2011

Moscow is preparing a list of U.S. officials it will ban from Russia in retaliation for a White House policy to keep Russian human rights abusers out of the U.S.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry this week began preparing a list of officials connected to the U.S. apprehension of suspected arms dealer Viktor A. Bout and convicted drug dealer Konstantin Yaroshenko, according to reports in the Russian press.

The State Department last month announced that it has a list of Russian officials connected to the 2009 slaying of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky who would be denied visas to visit the United States if requested.

When asked about the list of U.S. officials on Thursday, a spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Washington referred to a statement by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov.

“We will surely respond, but our response is not going to be an exact replica,” Mr. Ryabkov said this month. “The lists might differ in terms of composition.”

Mark Toner, deputy spokesman for the State Department, said: “We are aware of the reports in Russian media about a visa ban Russian authorities have purportedly put in place. We have not heard formally from the Russian government on this issue.”

Moscow’s equating Magnitsky, a lawyer investigating corruption at Russia’s Interior Ministry, and Mr. Bout, an arms dealer who is accused of having sold weapons to some of Africa’s and Asia’s most barbaric warlords, drew criticism in Washington.

David Kramer, president of Freedom House, a human rights group funded in part by Congress, said it is absurd to compare Magnitsky’s case to that of Mr. Bout.

“To compare the two cases is absurd,” Mr. Kramer said. “I find the Russian effort to be a poor joke. If this is the best they can do in terms of responding, they are neither very imaginative [nor] all that interested in getting to the bottom of the Magnitsky case.”

Mr. Bout was arrested in Thailand in November and extradited to the United States over the objections of Russia’s Foreign Ministry.

Yaroshenko was convicted this spring of conspiring to import drugs to the U.S. He was apprehended by U.S. special operations forces in Liberia in 2010.

Last week, the White House issued a proclamation declaring it U.S. policy to bar officials guilty of violating human rights and humanitarian law from entering the United States.

The White House’s proclamation and the State Department’s unpublicized list are seen by many observers as an effort to head off legislation known as the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, which was drafted by Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, Maryland Democrat.

Mr. Cardin’s bill is a new kind of targeted sanction that seeks to punish foreign government officials by denying them access to the West.

In the past, targeted sanctions attempted to freeze assets or punish a nation’s economy by banning exports of advanced technology.

Bill Browder, CEO of the Hermitage Fund, hired Magnitsky in 2007 as outside counsel for his investment firm in Russia. He has become a leading advocate for the new kinds of sanctions in Mr. Cardin’s legislation.

Mr. Browder said Magnitsky was hired to investigate tax fraud against the Hermitage Fund’s Moscow offices, where Interior Ministry officials stole the tax dues paid by the firm.

He was arrested by the Interior Ministry officials he was investigating in 2008. After being tortured in pretrial detention, Magnitsky died in 2009.

“It became clear there is no possibility of getting justice inside of Russia, so we decided to pursue avenues outside of Russia,” Mr. Browder said.

“What officials in all corrupt countries want is to travel to other countries like the United States and Europe and keep their money in those countries and be treated with respect in those countries,” he said. “Cardin’s legislation would take away from them the very things they covet.”

In an interview with The Washington Times, Mr. Cardin said that “what the White House did was important,” but he still plans to move ahead with his legislation.

He added that he thinks his bill spurred the White House to action. “I expect the Magnitsky case was the driving force,” he said.

“It is very important. I still believe the legislation we have brought forward is important. I am working on potential amendments to move this forward.”

A White House spokesman said the proclamation had been in the works for months and was not related to the Cardin legislation.

Nonetheless, the White House and State Department have taken an interest in Mr. Cardin’s bill.

Last month, the State Department gave the Senate the administration’s comments on the bill: “Senior Russian government officials have warned us that they will respond asymmetrically if legislation passes. Their argument is that we cannot expect them to be our partner in supporting sanctions against countries like Iran, North Korea, and Libya, and sanction them at the same time.”

The comments were first reported in Foreign Policy magazine.

Mr. Cardin said he would work on amendments to his bill, which includes an asset freeze and would force the State Department to name the Russian officials who would be barred entry to the U.S.

Mr. Cardin first introduced his legislation last year; he has since expanded it to bar Russian officials connected to other human rights cases.

The Cardin bill would apply to officials connected to the imprisonment of former Yukos Oil chief Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a political rival of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s, and the 2006 slaying of journalist Anna Politskaya, whose work was threatening to Mr. Putin and Russia’s suppression of unrest in Chechnya.

Mr. Browder said he has been approached in the past year by the victims of other Russian government human rights abuses who asked whether the Cardin legislation could include their cases.

As a result, the legislation is much broader now than when it was introduced in 2010.

“The State Department has allowed the door to be cracked open by banning the visas of the people who killed Sergei Magnitsky; however, they have not yet frozen their accounts, they have not yet named their names and, unfortunately, they have not gone after the other well-known murderers of innocent people and human rights activists,” he said.

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