National Security & Defense

Russian Propaganda Mysteriously Stalls a Human-Rights Act in Congress

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R., Calif.)

The Kremlin has a long reach. Late last month, it reached right into the halls of Congress.

In December 2012, President Obama signed into law the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, which gives the federal government the ability to ban entry to, and freeze the American assets of, anyone “responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights” committed against whistleblowers or human-rights activists in Russia.

Now, the lawmakers who ushered that bill through Congress are working to extend its provisions. The Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which passed the Senate in December and is currently sitting in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, would allow the U.S. government to target human-rights violators from across the globe.

But last month, shortly after it was scheduled for markup, the final stage before a bill is sent to the full House, the Global Magnitsky Act disappeared from the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s agenda. It seems that Chairman Ed Royce, who has been strident in his efforts to combat Russian propaganda, may have been the unwitting victim of it.

In early April, longtime Republican congressman Dana Rohrabacher, from California’s 48th district, visited Russia with two other members of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Democrats David Ciciline (R.I.) and Brian Higgins (N.Y.), and two members of the Financial Services Committee, Democrat Juan Vargas (Calif.) and Republican French Hill (Ark.). Rohrabacher is an outspoken Putin sympathizer, so it came as little surprise when — during a meeting with Konstantin Kosachev, the head of the Duma’s Upper House Committee for International Relations — he personally thanked Russia for its help in Syria.

But it was not until Rohrabacher had returned to the U.S. that it became public that he had split from the delegation for a confidential meeting with Vladimir Yakunin, the former head of Russian Railways, who in December 2014 was added to the sanctions list. Asked by Buzzfeed if he was aware that Yakunin is officially persona non grata in the U.S., Rohrabacher was dismissive: “It’s possible that somebody mentioned it to me,” he replied. Then: “It wouldn’t have made any difference anyway. I wasn’t doing business with him, I was listening to him.”

Of course, the problem is that Rohrabacher listens very sympathetically. In March 2014, he was one of just 19 congressmen who voted against sanctioning Russia and extending Ukraine a $1 billion aid package. (This was not long after a “fact-finding” trip to Russia, where Rohrabacher had a long, cozy meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin — one of the first people sanctioned when hostilities broke out the next spring.) Rohrabacher later groused about Russia’s ingratitude for his vote: “I kind of wish I would get some sort of word back. But I haven’t even gotten so much as a thank-you.”

Perhaps he’ll finally get his thanks. When National Review Online inquired why Rohrabacher had helped to spike the markup on the Global Magnitsky Act, his spokesperson, Ken Grubbs, stated: “The congressman came across some information that puts the Magnitsky narrative as we know it into some question, and he wants to pursue it.”

Grubbs would not elaborate on what that information was or where it came from. But NRO has learned that while Rohrabacher was in Russia, he received a dossier that purports to offer new revelations about Sergei Magnitsky. He was also informed about a new “documentary,” The Magnitsky Affair — Behind the Scenes, by Russian filmmaker Andrei Nekrasov.

The facts of the “Magnitsky affair” are beyond dispute. In 2009, Sergei Magnitsky died in the medical unit of Matrosskaya Tishina prison in Moscow, after 358 days in Russian custody — not for committing a crime, but for exposing one. In the summer of 2007, Hermitage Capital Investment was raided by Russian police on charges of tax evasion. They seized documents from the company’s Moscow offices — then used them to re-register the company under different ownership, concoct $1 billion in fake tax liabilities, and eventually take $230 million, in the guise of a tax rebate. Magnitsky, hired by Hermitage to investigate, was instrumental in exposing this crime, which implicated Russian Interior Ministry officers, judges, and more; he even testified against some of them. Shortly after, he was arrested by one of the Interior Ministry officers he exposed and imprisoned.

#share#Over the next year, suffering increasing deprivations in Russian prisons — including, for a time, Moscow’s notorious Butyrka — he became seriously ill. His 20 requests for medical attention were ignored or rejected. Almost a year after his arrest, he was moved to Matrosskaya Tishina, where he was handcuffed to a bed and beaten to death by prison officials. Three years later, largely thanks to the efforts of William Browder, Hermitage’s founder and CEO, the Magnitsky Act was signed into law.

Documents included in Rohrabacher’s dossier, which have been reviewed by NRO, challenge this well-documented sequence of events. The Russian government alleges that Browder’s congressional testimony while lobbying on behalf of the Magnitsky Act was “either deliberately distorted, or contrary to the truth.” According to the documents, Browder embezzled from the Russian treasury but then tried to pin his crime on the Russian government by “simulating” the theft from Hermitage, and then he later exploited Magnitsky’s death to further cast himself as a victim. “There is not a jot of truth in Browder’s story,” the documents claim. “But this is the doctrinal essence of the story known as the ‘Magnitsky case’ put in as a basis for the US Act that caused the most severe damage to the US-Russian relations in recent years.”

Nekrasov’s film alleges much the same thing: Magnitsky was not beaten; he did not expose a crime; he was not even an attorney; he and Browder were shrewd crooks who stole a massive amount of money from the Russian government, then duped governments the world over.

Magnitsky’s case has been thoroughly investigated by several governments and independent organizations, and even documents from the Russian government bolster several of Browder’s claims. It’s not at all clear why Nekrasov — who is widely known as an outspoken critic of Putin’s Russia — filmed a pro-Kremlin propaganda piece. But it’s no mystery why the Russian government is targeting Magnitsky’s legacy: The Magnitsky Act has proven devastating to Russia’s powers-that-be, who keep much of their wealth safely overseas, and they know that the Global Magnitsky Act, although it does nothing to Russia itself, would further entrench the concept of sanctions against individual human-rights violators and make it all but impossible to roll back the original Magnitsky Act. Since Russia’s retaliatory acts intended to kill the Magnitsky Act — banning from Russia certain American officials involved in enhanced interrogations at Guantanamo Bay, and banning the adoption of Russian children by American parents — have not succeeded, they have turned to defaming Sergei Magnitsky.

Indeed, the Kremlin is waging an all-out campaign. In mid April, Rossiya-1 aired The Browder Effect, which alleges that Russia’s opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, is an agent of the CIA (or maybe it’s MI6, the details are sketchy) recruited by Browder, who in turn has been an MI6 agent since 1995. The Russian prosecutor general has said that Browder was employed by the CIA and was in Russia to steal commercial secrets from the state’s energy company, Gazprom.

This is the sort of “information” that is now delaying the Global Magnitsky Act in the House.

#related#Congressional sources also report that some Republican members of the committee are concerned about the absence of a sunset provision in the bill — which, incidentally, has a Nekrasov connection, too. Finnish European Parliament member Heidi Hautala, Nekrasov’s friend (and romantic partner, according to local media), has insisted that any Magnitsky Act–style sanctions in the EU be accompanied by a sunset clause — apparently in an effort to ensnare any potential sanctions bill. After all, if the sanctions are against, for example, the 32 individuals the European Parliament has identified as responsible for Magnitsky’s death, what could perennial “re-evaluation of the grounds” possibly yield?

Is something similar happening in the House Foreign Affairs Committee to hold up the Global Magnitsky Act? It’s not clear. It’s worth noting, though, that this seems not to have been a concern for the Senate, which passed the bill by unanimous consent, and that the original Magnitsky Act — passed overwhelmingly by both Houses — has no sunset clause.

In April 2015, almost one year to the day before the Global Magnitsky Act was supposed to go to markup, Ed Royce chaired a Foreign Affairs hearing entitled “Confronting Russia’s Weaponization of Information.” As long as the Global Magnitsky Act remains stuck in committee on specious grounds, Russia’s information offensive is winning.

 Ian Tuttle is a National Review Institute Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism.

[Editor’s Note: This piece has been amended since its initial posting.]

Ian Tuttle — Ian Tuttle is the former Thomas L. Rhodes Journalism Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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