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Politics & Policy

Don Jr. and the Magnitsky Myth

With regard to l’affaire Donald Trump Jr., one further thought about why you don’t “take the meeting,” particularly this meeting.

Anyone remotely familiar with the tensions that prevail between Russia and the United States knows the name “Magnitsky.” In 2012, President Obama signed into law the “Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act,” legislation that permitted the federal government 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.

Naturally, the Kremlin was not happy. Moscow tried mightily to kill the bill and, failing that, to at least strip Sergei Magnitsky’s name from it. After it passed, Russia turned its efforts to undermining the law (hence the ban on Americans adopting Russian children). When Congress took up the Global Magnitsky Act last year — an expansion of the original bill that allows the U.S. to target human-rights violators worldwide — Russian operatives renewed their campaign.

One of the chief campaigners has been Natalia Veselnitskaya, the attorney with whom Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner met on June 9, 2016, at Trump Tower in Manhattan. Veselnitskaya might be just another lobbyist — every country has its interests, after all — if it were not for the fact that her lobbying involves peddling false and slanderous propaganda about the dead man after whom the Magnitsky acts are named.

I wrote the following last year:

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.

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.

The facts of Magnitsky’s case have been affirmed by several governments and independent organizations, and even the Russian government has acknowledged some of the central claims.

Nonetheless, an active misinformation campaign is ongoing. Last year, filmmaker Andrei Nekrasov released The Magnitsky Act — Behind the Scenes, a “documentary” that suggests that Magnitsky was never beaten, that he never exposed a crime, and that in fact it was Magnitsky who stole money from the Kremlin. Veselnitskaya was instrumental in arranging a screening of the film at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. She also arranged a screening in Brussels, at the European Parliament, although it was canceled last-minute to forestall a libel suit.

None of this was unknown. On June 9, the controversy surrounding the Newseum’s plan to screen the film was reported by the New York Times and Buzzfeed. Nonetheless, this was the person Donald Trump Jr. welcomed to Trump Tower, and who received a face-to-face meeting with the highest members of the de facto Republican presidential nominee’s campaign.

Did Trump Jr. et al. not know their guest’s background? Or did they know and not care? Neither prospect is encouraging.

But, what is more, this would have been a grotesque lapse of judgment even if the meeting had been about what Don Jr. initially said it was about: adoption policies vis-a-vis the Magnitsky Act.


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