By Woody Atwood, Intern
In 2008, a Russian tax lawyer named Sergei Magnitsky representing Hermitage Capital Management in a dispute over alleged tax evasion discovered a $230 million fraud being committed by Russian law enforcement officers assigned to the case.
Magnitsky reported the fraud to the authorities and was arrested soon after by the same officers he had accused. For almost a year, Magnitsky was held in squalid prison conditions, denied visits from his family, and beaten by guards. Despite developing serious cases of gallstones, pancreatitis, and cholecystitis, he was denied medical attention. On November 16, 2009, Sergei Magnitsky was beaten to death in his cell. He had been imprisoned for 358 days, just seven days short of the maximum legal pre-trial detention period in Russia.
A year later, Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), then Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, introduced the Justice for Sergei Magnitsky Act, directing the U.S. Secretary of State to publish a list of individuals involved in Sergei’s detention and death, and enabling the government to deny these individuals entry to the United States and freeze their American assets. The bill was reintroduced in the next Congress as the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act. This version covered all individual who commit extrajudicial killings, torture or otherwise egregiously violate the human rights of activists or whistleblowers in Russia. Both houses of Congress passed the new bill in late 2012 as part of the Russia and Moldova Jackson-Vanik Repeal and Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act. On December 14, 2012, President Obama signed the Magnitsky Act into law, establishing severe consequences for the worst human rights violators in Russia.
Just weeks after the passage of the Magnitsky Act, the Russian parliament and government responded by passing a law banning American families from adopting children from Russia. The law immediately terminated adoptions that were being processed, and many children, including children with serious disabilities, who were due to leave Russia were never able to join their American families. In 2013, the Russian government also issued a list of 18 American officials banned from entering Russia.
In 2015, Sen. Cardin and Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), who was then chairing the Helsinki Commission, introduced the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act to expand the authorities established by the original Magnitsky Act to include the worst human rights violators and those who commit significant acts of corruption around the world. The legislation required the President to annually issue a list of individuals sanctioned under it on Human Rights Day (December 10) or the soonest day thereafter when the full Congress is in session. The global version was passed in December 2016 as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017.
The story of Sergei Magnitsky and the actions of the U.S. Congress have sparked a global movement to hold individual perpetrators accountable for their human rights violations and corruption. In the last year, Estonia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Lithuania have all passed their own Magnitsky laws.
In honor of Human Rights Day and the fifth anniversary of the Magnitsky Act, and to correspond to the deadline for the annual Global Magnitsky List, the U.S. Helsinki Commission is holding two events related to the legacy of Sergei Magnitsky. On Wednesday, December 13, at 3:00PM Commission staff will lead a public briefing on “Combating Kleptocracy with the Global Magnitsky Act,” and on Thursday, December 14, Commissioners will hear testimony on “The Magnitsky Act at Five: Assessing Accomplishments and Challenges.”