Senate panel OKs bill on Russian human rights

A Senate panel moved ahead Tuesday on legislation that would impose tough sanctions on Russian human rights violators, a bill certain to be linked to congressional efforts to lift Cold War-era restrictions on trade with Russia.

By voice vote, the Foreign Relations Committee approved the measure that would impose visa bans and freeze the assets of those held responsible for gross human rights violations in Russia as well as other human rights abusers. 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 Sen. Ben Cardin, enjoys strong bipartisan support in the Senate. The Maryland Democrat said he was optimistic that the House would accept his more far-reaching version. The House Foreign Affairs Committee approved a similar bill earlier this month.

"This bill is universal," Cardin told reporters shortly after the vote. "It's absolutely motivated by Sergei Magnitsky, but it's universal in its application."

The Russian government has expressed strong objections to the bill and suggested that there would be retaliatory measures if it becomes law. The Obama administration has been noncommittal in its public statements about the measure.

During brief discussion of the legislation, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., noted Russia's record of accomplishments and missteps. He said the United States shouldn't always be the one pointing fingers at other nations, but added, "Human rights is in our DNA."

The bill was designed to publicize the names of the offenders. But the measure does allow the secretary of state to classify the names based on national security.

Cardin offered an amendment that requires the administration to explain annually why it is classifying the names. In an odd turn, Kerry expressed concern that with the recent leaks of classified information, the names could be released. After some debate, the panel adopted Cardin's amendment by voice vote.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., has said he would add the human rights legislation to a bipartisan measure to normalize trade relations with Russia, a move that could occur next month. That bill would repeal the 1974 Jackson-Vanik act that tied trade with the then-Soviet Union to Moscow's allowing Jews and other minorities to leave the country.

The repeal of Jackson-Vanik is necessary if U.S. businesses are to enjoy the lower tariffs and increased access to Russian markets that will become available when Russia joins the World Trade Organization this summer. Supporters of normalized trade said it could lead to a doubling of U.S. exports to Russia.

Separately, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., sent a letter to President Barack Obama on Tuesday asking him to determine whether to impose sanctions against the Klyuev Group. McCain called the group a "dangerous transnational criminal organization" and suggested it may have been involved in the murder of Magnitsky.