Barack Obama has signed into law a bill that establishes normal trade relations with Russia for the first time in decades, including the repeal of the 1974 Jackson-Vanick Amendment that denied "most favored nation" status to countries restricting human rights.
But the bill also included the so-called "Magnitsky" Act, which calls for sanctions against any Russian who was involved in the 2009 death of lawyer and whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky. Russia is incensed by what it considers interference with an internal matter.
The editor-in-chief of a well known pro-government newspaper, Komsomolskaya Pravda, was the first high-profile individual to be affected. He received a fax on Friday Dec. 14, the same day the law was enacted, informing him that his visa to the United States had been revoked due to the provisions of the Magnitsky Act. It is not clear what his connection to the Magnitsky case is.
What happened to Sergei Magnitsky?
Sergei Magnitsky, the auditor of the Hermitage Capital fund, was accused of tax evasion. He was held in prison for nearly a year, during which time he told doctors on several occasions that he was feeling ill. In spite of his complaints, he never received medical treatment, and his health got worse. He died on Nov. 16, 2009 after having finally been transferred to a medical facility and treated for chronic hepatitis and diabetes.
According to investigations, he was never given adequate, modern treatment. His colleagues insisted that the charges under which he was arrested were trumped up. In addition, he had claimed to have evidence of massive fraud and a cover-up attempt facilitated by many people in the Russian government, and had even testified against several members of the Kremlin. Outside of Russia, many observers considered his death anything but accidental.
Before the law came up for a vote in the United States, members of the Russian parliament tried to convince their American counterparts that Magnitsky's arrest and death were not politically motivated. They sent documents meant to prove that Magnitsky's arrest was based on real evidence and that he then was a victim of medical negligence.
But the American senators were not convinced. Although some senators thought that the law should apply to government officials from any country involved in human rights abuses, the majority felt that the restrictions should apply to Russia only. President Obama unexpectedly supported this interpretation. According to sources in the U.S. State department, this was because the White House decided it would not be able to avoid a negative reaction from Moscow, but wanted to prevent negative reactions to the law in China and the Middle East.
In reaction to the law, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered a lengthy response:
"A person died; it has been clear for some time that Mr. Magnitsky died in prison. That is a tragedy that we regret. What, are you telling me that nobody dies in their prisons? Maybe more people die in their prisons than in ours. In European prisons? In the U.S.?
Listen, it's been eight years and Guantanamo is still not closed; people are held without a trial or an investigation, like in the Middle Ages; prisoners walk around in chains and shackles! People who open secret prisons, legalize torture without investigations! And now these people are now accusing us of somehow not being good enough!