— Legislation by Sen. Ben Cardin to pressure Russia on human rights abuses is expected to win approval in Congress Thursday despite concerns that it will hurt already tenuous U.S. relations with the Kremlin.
The proposal — which requires the State Department to maintain a public list of human rights abusers in Russia and freeze their assets — has received bipartisan support in the House and Senate even though the Obama administration has largely resisted the effort.
Because the language is tucked into a trade bill that is a priority for Russia and U.S. businesses, President Obama is expected to sign the measure if sent to his desk. Cardin's provision has drawn sharp rebukes from Russian leaders at a time of delicate diplomacy with Moscow.
Cardin never flinched.
"You've got to stand up on human rights issues," said the Maryland Democrat, who steered the bill through a gridlocked Congress. "The one thing we learned about Russian Jews — if we didn't put a spotlight on it, they'd still be in prisons."
The legislation is named after Sergei Magnitsky, a 37-year-old Russian lawyer who was arrested and jailed after exposing government corruption. Magnitsky died in his cell, possibly after being beaten and tortured.
A spokesman for the Russian Embassy declined to comment, but officials in President Vladimir Putin's administration have argued that the legislation represents an antagonistic meddling in internal affairs. In a statement last month, the Russian foreign affairs ministry pointed to the prison at Guantanamo Bay and argued that the U.S. should re-examine its own human rights record.
"Congressmen did not hear the repeated warnings that this move will negatively affect the overall atmosphere of Russian-American relations," the statement read, adding that Russia would not let the bill stand "without [a] hard answer from our side."
The threat comes at a time when relations with Russia have already frayed over NATO involvement in Libya, which Putin felt exceeded a United Nations mandate for that mission, as well Russia's ties to the Assad regime in Syria, which have drawn criticism from the U.S.
An earlier Senate version of the Magnitsky legislation would have required the State Department to maintain a list of human rights abusers in all countries, which was Cardin's preference. But the bill approved last month by the GOP-led House of Representatives dealt only with Russia.
Cardin had to decide whether to accept the narrower language or amend the House bill and send it back for further debate, which could have killed it. In order to get a bill to the White House, he chose compromise.
And that decision appears to have the backing of human rights groups.
"We've long supported a provision in the Magnitsky bill that would sanction global human rights abusers," sad Sarah Margon, deputy Washington director for Human Rights Watch. But, she said, "given the unprecedented crackdown against civil society and human rights activists in Russia, the current opportunity to pass the bill should be seized."
The bill's passage would be a significant political victory for Cardin, a first-term senator. Several prominent Republicans came to the Senate floor during debate Wednesday to praise his work on the bill.
"He has set himself as a leading voice in our country on these issues," Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona said of Cardin. "Cardin deserves great credit in the world for this historic achievement. … Dictators all over the world are paying attention."
Cardin's language, which would also deny U.S. visas to human rights abusers, was included as part of a popular proposal to lift Cold War-era trade restrictions on Russia. The Chamber of Commerce and other business groups pushed for that legislation, which will allow U.S.-based companies to increase exports to Russia.
Though the Obama administration supports the trade bill — as well as promoting human rights in Russia — it was cool to linking the two issues. A spokeswoman for the National Security Council said this year that the administration preferred a "clean trade bill," without Cardin's provision.
State Department officials noted that they already have put senior Russian officials connected to Magnitsky's death on a visa blacklist.
Harley Balzer, a government professor and Russia expert at Georgetown University, said he, too, has concerns about linking the trade bill to the human rights provision. American businesses stand to gain the most from the trade provisions, he said. But since Congress was eager to pass the Cardin measure, he said the best thing for relations with Russia would be to pass it and move on.
Balzer said he believes much of the opposition from Russia over the Magnitsky legislation is bluster.
"I can understand why they're upset," Balzer said, "but the Europeans are in on this also — it's not just the Americans."
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