MOSCOW -- Russian officials are promising a tough response to U.S. legislation that would impose sanctions on Russian officials if Congress finds them responsible for violating human rights.
The U.S. House on Friday passed a bill that establishes permanent normal trade relations with Russia, repealing the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment, which had imposed limits on trade because of the Soviet Union's treatment of Jews. It had been waived annually since 1989, two years before the Soviet Union collapsed.
But a provision of the legislation named after Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky also would impose sanctions on officials responsible for human rights violations.
Magnitsky was a 37-year-old lawyer representing the Britain-based Hermitage Capital Management company in 2008 when he blew the whistle on alleged fraud involving Russian tax officials and police officers. Magnitsky said a tax refund scam had cost Russia about $200 million.
But Magnitsky himself was arrested on charges of organizing tax evasion for Hermitage Capital executives. He was allegedly tortured and denied proper medical treatment, and died in a Moscow prison on Nov. 16, 2009.
The circumstances of his death as well as the purported multimillion-dollar fraud have never been properly investigated, human rights activists say.
If the legislation passed by the House on Friday, the third anniversary of Magnitsky's death, also passes the Senate and is signed by President Barack Obama, U.S. officials will be obligated within 120 days to compile and publish a list of Russian officials involved in Magnitsky's persecution and death, and other violations of human rights in Russia.
The officials on the so-called Magnitsky list will be denied U.S. visas and current visas will be revoked. Their financial assets in the United States will be frozen.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said the legislation could damage relations with the United States.
"The passage of the Magnitsky Act is another attempt of flagrant politicizing the issue of human rights," the ministry's envoy on human rights, Konstantin Dolgov, said Saturday in an interview with Voice of Russia radio station. "The American side over and over again attempts to accuse Russia of violating human rights in (Sergei) Magnitsky's case, ignoring the exhaustive explanations about the course of the case's investigation."
Dmitry Peskov, President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, said late Friday that the legislation would elicit an "equally tough response."
Lilia Shevtsova, a senior researcher with the Moscow Carnegie Center, said there was little left of the U.S.-Russia relationship to be damaged by the latest dispute.
"Moscow however may take advantage of it to more actively play the role of the spoiler in respect to America in global politics," Shevtsova said. "The Kremlin will try to use the situation to intensify its ongoing crackdown on the opposition inside the country."
Pavel Palazhchenko, senior adviser to former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, said he was puzzled by Russia's tough reaction.
"My guess is that the authorities, including the Foreign Ministry, misjudged the internal dynamics in the U.S., betting that the administration, which never likes Congress micromanaging foreign policy, would object to the Magnitsky Act," he said.
Palazhchenko said Russia was rapidly using up any goodwill left in the West, but he predicted that Obama would do some damage control before his planned visit to Moscow next year.