On December 14, U.S. Congress held an open hearing on the state of human rights and the rule of law in Russia. Invited experts supported the country’s recent protests, and State Department officials indicated the possibility of a dialogue with Congress on the “Magnitsky Act.”
The speakers and participants in the day’s two panels agreed that the hearings (held by the the Senate’s Subcommittee on European Affairs) were very timely. Last week a wave of peaceful protests took place in Russia and in many other countries against numerous instances of fraud during the December 4 Russian Parliamentary elections. In her opening remarks, Subcommittee Chairwoman Sen. Jeanne Shaheen noted some positive changes in Russian society, but also expressed concerns over the well-being of activists arrested during the demonstrations.
The experts on the first panel also discussed the protests in Russia. Both Philip Gordon, Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, and Thomas O. Melia, Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, declared that despite the U.S.’s intention to continue building a cooperative partnership with Russia on many important issues, it is impossible to ignore instances of fraud identified in the election campaign. (Secretary of State Hillary Clinton voiced her firm stance on this issue last week.) Assistant Secretary Gordon tried to finish on an more optimistic note by saying that “there is still very much reason to believe that Russia will move in the direction of more democracy.”
The second panel – consisting of representatives from various human rights organizations – asked Congress to pay special attention to the recent protests which, in their opinion, reflected the state of Russian society. As David Kramer, Director of Freedom House, put it: “The message that Russian citizens sent to the world is ‘Enough is Enough.’ And this is just the beginning."
Both, Kramer and Tom Malinowski, Washington Director at Human Rights Watch, called on Congress to openly support human rights activists in Russia. Both experts maintained that the U.S. government should engage in public discussion of election violations by the Russian government, thereby allowing protesters to feel the support of the U.S. Kramer and Malinowski concluded by expressing the need to establish a special commission to investigate the numerous allegations of fraud.
Another important issue raised at the hearing was the “Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act,” first introduced in Congress by Democratic Senator Benjamin Cardin (present at the hearing) and Republican Senator John McCain.
Kramer and Malinowski, who have supported the bill from the beginning, once again called for its approval by the State Department, a move they argued would support Russians in their fight against corruption and impunity, particularly by imposing sanctions against those responsible for the death of Magnitsky and other crimes. As an example of one such crime, Malinowski told the story of Islam Umarpashev, the 24-year-old Chechen abducted by representatives of Chechen law enforcement and held a hostage for a year. Umarpashev was lucky to escape. According to Malinowski, this and many other cases of torture, as well as kidnapping and murder should be made public in Russia and abroad, and the Magnitsky Act should be applied to people directly involved in such crimes. Both experts shared the view that the bill could replace the outdated Jackson-Vanik amendment.
Invited officials from the State Department acknowledged the importance and good intention of the Magnitsky Act, and Assistant Secretary Gordon even noted that they are ready to have a dialogue on this issue. Such a statement is a clear sign of progress, given the fact that the State Department refused to endorse the bill earlier this year, even while introducing visa sanctions against persons included in the so-called "Magnitsky list."