European Union lawmakers called on the 27-nation bloc to consider a visa ban on 60 Russian officials allegedly linked to the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, in a move certain to create friction with Russia.
The 736-member European Parliament voted at a session in Strasbourg, France, today to recommend that national governments bar the officials in the absence of “positive moves” by Russian authorities to investigate the lawyer’s death, at age 37, in November 2009, the assembly said in an e-mailed statement.
While EU nations are under no obligation to adopt the recommendation, the vote came two days after politicians from the U.S. and Europe cited Magnitsky’s case along with that of jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky as a litmus test of Russia’s pledges to improve the rule of law. Similar initiatives to impose visa sanctions are under way in the U.S. and Canada.
President Dmitry Medvedev has made fighting corruption and ending what he terms as “legal nihilism” one of his key objectives as he seeks to attract foreign investors to reduce Russia’s reliance on oil, gas and other raw materials.
Ending the “persecution” of Khodorkovsky and “finding justice” for Magnitsky and other victims “would send positive signals of change and show that Russia is indeed on the path towards modernization,” said an open letter to Medvedev published Dec. 14 in the Financial Times. The signatories included former U.K. foreign ministers, David Miliband and Malcolm Rifkind, ex-French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson.
Magnitsky, a lawyer advising London-based Hermitage Capital Management Ltd., once the largest foreign investment fund in Russia, died after almost a year in pre-trial detention during which he said he was abused and denied medical treatment to force him to drop fraud allegations against Russian officials.
Khodorkovsky, the former head of Yukos Oil Co., faces up to another 14 years in jail on oil theft charges in addition to the eight years he’s serving for fraud. A Moscow court yesterday postponed reading the verdict in the case until Dec. 27, during the holidays when many foreign journalists leave Russia.
Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man, has said his 2005 conviction was motivated by his opposition to Vladimir Putin, who was president at the time of his 2003 arrest.
The Russian Foreign Ministry denounced earlier votes by human rights committees in the European and Canadian parliaments also urging sanctions over Magnitsky’s death as “interference” in Russia’s internal affairs.
Interfax cited an unnamed Foreign Ministry source as saying that if the EU bans these Russian officials, there will be “identical measures” taken by Russia.
The chairwoman of the European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights, Heidi Hautala, said today by e-mail that despite coming under “heavy pressure” from Russian lawmakers and officials, by passing the motion the assembly was “calling for justice for an innocent man who died in prison.”
In the U.S., Senator Benjamin Cardin and Congressman James McGovern, both Democrats, introduced legislation on Sept. 29 that would freeze the assets of and ban visas for the officials accused of involvement in Magnitsky’s death. Lawmakers in the Canadian parliament also plan to introduce similar legislation.
Hermitage founder William Browder’s list of those responsible for Magnitsky’s death includes officials from the Federal Security Service, the main successor to the KGB, the Interior Ministry, the Prosecutor General’s Office, the Federal Tax Service and the Federal Prison Service.
The Investigative Committee of the Prosecutor General’s Office is probing officials accused of involvement in Magnitsky’s death. Alexander Bastrykin, who heads the panel, said in a September interview with Rossiiskaya Gazeta, the government’s official newspaper, that there was “no reason” to believe Magnitsky’s death was connected to the activities of those prosecuting the criminal case against him.
Russia last year put Browder on its international “wanted” list, saying he and Magnitsky participated in tax evasion that deprived the government of more than 500 million rubles ($16 million).
Hermitage, which once had assets of $4 billion in Russia, has denied wrongdoing, calling the charges retribution for Magnitsky accusing Interior Ministry officials of stealing more than $230 million of state funds.