Rights flare as US Congress normalizes Russia trade ties
The US Congress passed legislation on trade with Russia Thursday that targeted human rights abusers in the prison death of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, drawing a furious response from Moscow.
Voting 92-4, the US Senate approved establishing permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) with Russia, ending Cold War-era restrictions, but also requiring sanctions against anyone connected to Magnitsky's death.
Russia immediately called the action "a theater of the absurd" and vowed to retaliate, turning what would have been a boost in trade relations between the two powers into another source of friction.
The legislation, which also grants the trade status to Moldova, now goes to the White House for President Barack Obama's signature.
Independent Senator Joe Lieberman said the Magnitsky measure will "punish human rights violators in Russia today" and send a "very powerful message" to the leadership in Moscow.
"Today, with passage of the Magnitsky act, we are saying to people in Russia who are striving to secure their fundamental freedoms: we have not and we will not forget you," Lieberman said.
"We will stand in solidarity with the millions in Russia who have a single goal, which is a democratic Russia that respects the rule of law and fundamental freedoms and that is free of corruption."
The new legislation would compel the US government to freeze the assets of and deny entry to anyone tied to Magnitsky's 2009 death in prison.
The lawyer was arrested after alleging that Russian officials had systematically orchestrated a massive theft through fraudulent tax refunds from the state.
The Russian foreign ministry warned that the US law "will have a very negative influence on the future of our bilateral education," and said Moscow would be "forced to retaliate."
Even before the Senate vote, Russian officials had made clear they would regard sanctions against Russian officials as a "hostile and unilateral measure."
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev last week described the move as a "mistake."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov sought "clarification" about the legislation from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during a bilateral meeting Thursday in Dublin, Ireland, according to a senior State Department official.
The repeal of the 1974 legislation known as the Jackson-Vanik amendment was meant to reflect the changes in the world with Russia's ascension to the World Trade Organization.
US lawmakers noted how US businesses stood to gain if Washington grants PNTR to its former Cold War rival.
"Strengthening our bilateral trade relations... will provide access to new markets for American businesses, farmers and ranchers, expand our economy here at home, and create much-needed jobs," Republican Senator Orrin Hatch said in a statement after the vote.
"At the same time, this measure includes strong enforcement tools to ensure Russia lives up to its international trade obligations, and provisions to help advance human rights and the rule of law in Russia."
US administration officials offered similar praise, including US Trade Representative Ron Kirk and acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank, who noted how US exports will surge to one of the world's largest economies.
"This necessary step will further level the playing field for American workers and businesses, which is why the president has made passage of this bill a top legislative trade priority," Blank said.
Under the Jackson-Vanik amendment, the president has been required to certify to Congress every year that Russia meets human rights standards when it comes to permitting Jewish emigration.
Long a thorn in relations, the law came into question when Russia joined the WTO in August. This put Jackson-Vanik in conflict with WTO mandates that any advantage granted by one WTO member must be extended to all.
Jewish emigration is no longer a major issue but some lawmakers remain opposed to the normalization of commercial relations with Russia due to human rights concerns and in light of arms sales by Russia to the Syrian regime.
© 2012 AFP