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The Journal Gazette

Friday, December 07, 2012 8:55 am

Russia threatens to respond tit-for-tat to US bill


Moscow has strongly criticized U.S. legislation that calls for sanctions against Russian officials accused of human rights abuses and warned that it will respond in kind. A leading anti-corruption crusader, however, hailed the bill as "pro-Russian."

The legislation is primarily intended to end Cold War-era trade restrictions and was hailed by U.S. businesses worried about falling behind in the race to win shares of Russia's more open market, but its human rights part has outraged President Vladimir Putin's government.

The measure, dubbed the Magnitsky act, is named for Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who was arrested by officials he accused of a $230-million tax fraud. He was repeatedly denied medical treatment and in 2009 died after almost a year in jail after being severely beaten by guards. Russian rights groups accused the Kremlin of failing to prosecute those responsible, while independent media claimed that such tax frauds are widespread.

Russia's Foreign Ministry responded to the U.S. Senate vote late Thursday by calling it a "show in the theater of the absurd." It warned that Russia will respond to the new legislation in kind, adding that the U.S. will have to take the blame for the worsening of U.S.-Russian ties.

"Probably people in Washington forgot what year it is and are thinking that the Cold War isn't over yet," the ministry said in a statement adding that "it's weird and strange to hear human rights-related complaints against us from the politicians of a country where torture and abductions of people all over the world were legitimized in the 21st century."

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told Russian media that he warned U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton during their meeting in Dublin on Thursday that Russia "will ban entry to the Americans who are in fact guilty of violating human rights."

Alexei Pushkov, the Kremlin-connected head of the Foreign Affairs committee in the lower house of Russia's parliament, said that lawmakers will consider legislation that would impose travel restrictions and an assets freeze on U.S. citizens accused of human rights violations.

Amid the angry official rhetoric, Sergei Alexashenko, an economist who was a deputy chief of Russia's Central Bank, said on Ekho Moskvy radio late Thursday that the Kremlin would be unlikely to take any strong anti-U.S. action for fear of causing an even bigger strain in relations.

Alexei Navalny, Russia's leading anti-corruption whistleblower and opposition leader, wrote in his blog Friday that officials' anger against the U.S. legislation stems from fear for their foreign assets.

"Don't confuse the interests of Russia and Russian officials fear for their corruption savings in foreign banks," he said. "The Magnitsky act is absolutely pro-Russian. It is aimed at scoundrels who stole 5.4 billion rubles, laundered it abroad, then tortured and killed a Russian citizen."

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev last week voiced concern that EU nations may follow the U.S. example and pass similar laws.

Media reports said that British authorities already have compiled a list of 60 Russian officials barred from entry over their alleged involvement in Magnitsky's death.

The Russian Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, insisted that the new U.S. legislation is driven by a "revengeful desire to settle scores" with Russia for its stance on international issues.

Russia and the United States have clashed over Syria, with Washington accusing Moscow of propping up Bashar Assad's regime despite its bloody crackdown on an uprising that began in March 2011. According to anti-government activists, more than 36,000 Syrians have been killed.

Russia and China have used their veto power at the U.N. Security Council three times to block sanctions against Assad's government. Moscow also has continued to ship weapons to Assad, shrugging off Western protests.