House panel passes bill on Russian human rights

The House Foreign Relations Committee voted Thursday to penalize Russian human rights violators in a measure that could complicate efforts to normalize trade relations between the two countries.

The legislation, approved by voice vote, imposes visa bans and freezes the assets of those held responsible for gross human rights violations in Russia. Specifically, it targets those allegedly involved in the imprisonment, torture and death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in a Russian jail in 2009.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., also requires any officials implicated in human rights violations to be publicly named and sanctioned.

The legislation, said Foreign Relations Committee chairman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., would "demonstrate to the corrupt rulers of Russia that they cannot threaten us into silence, they cannot forever suppress the evidence of their crimes."

Russian officials have condemned the legislation and indicated they will retaliate if Congress passes the Magnitsky bill.

Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., is promoting a companion bill in the Senate, and supporters say it could be linked to an administration-supported effort to normalize trade relations with Moscow.

Russia is expected to join the World Trade Organization later this year, resulting in greater access to Russian markets. But U.S. exporters will not be able to take advantage of the lower tariffs accompanying WTO entry unless Congress first votes to repeal a Cold War-era law known as the Jackson-Vanik act. That law denies normal trading relations with Communist nations that restricted the emigration of Jews and other minorities.

In Congress, the Jackson-Vanik law is no longer considered relevant in the post-Soviet era, but there's also resistance to lifting it because of Russia's poor human rights record in recent years and its policies on missile defense, Libya and Syria that have been at odds with the U.S.

Normal trade relations with Russia is a top priority for American business groups. They argue that U.S. exports to Russia, about $9 billion last year, could go up significantly with the removal of trade barriers.

The National Foreign Trade Council and USA-Engage, a coalition of business groups, issued a joint statement this week saying that the Magnitsky bill "would harm U.S. relations with Russia and many other nations, and would jeopardize the significant benefits arising from Russian concessions during its WTO accession negotiations."