20 years under Putin: a timeline

On Friday, August 5, President Obama issued a proclamation that bans anyone who has engaged in human rights abuses abroad from entering the United States. It was another strong measure against  the human rights abusers. The first one would be that only last week the U.S. Department of State blacklisted dozens of Russian officials to prevent them from visiting the United States due to their involvement in the detention and death of the Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. Those are some of its sharpest responses to human rights abuses in Russia and the rest of the world so far.



President Obama bans human right abusers from entering the US


The ban approved by the State Department was in fact a compromise to the claim of a group of 20 U.S. senators, including Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD), and John McCain (R-AZ), who had earlier introduced and sponsored 'Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act' (S 1039). The senators were pushing for even more severe sanctions, such as freezing the American assets of those linked to the case of Sergei Magnitsky, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and of other blatant human rights abusers. But the State Department decided not to go that far, not wanting to jeopardize the few improvements won after the launch of the 'reset' policy. At least, for now. Meanwhile, European countries have also been considering visa bans to officials linked to the case.

The so-called "Magnitsky's list" includes 60 people while Yukos's list has 305 names in it, among them Federal Investigation Bureau (FSB) and police officers, prison security guards and doctors, prosecutors, tax inspectors and other state officials. The banning measure will also apply to officials implicated in the deaths of Natalia Estemirova, a human rights worker killed in the North Caucasus in 2009, and Anna Politkovskaya, a prominent investigative journalist killed in Moscow in 2006.

Despite the growth of human rights violations in Russia, Magnitsky case stands out because of the scale of the fraud, ruthlessness and cruelty surrounding it. Having been hired by William Browder, president of Hermitage Capital hedge-fund, to investigate the government raiding attack on his company, Mr. Magnitsky had discovered and testified in court that senior officials of the Ministry of Internal Affairs had stolen documents from the fund and used them to receive by fraud $230 million in tax refunds. He was arrested and accused of the fraud he had discovered in the first place. He was kept in jail for 11 months in insufferable conditions, denied of medical assistance, and finally died before his trial even got started. As if to mock the tragedy, over time, some of those involved in the case received medals for excellent government service.

Magnitsky's death caused an outrage in Russian media and human rights organizations, but Russian officials have been reluctant to pursue an investigation of his death. Only last month was the case brought to the public agenda again, when two prison doctors were formally charged for neglect in their treatment of Magnitsky, even though according to the conclusions of experts authorized by President Medvedev's Human Rights Council much many law enforcement officials were guilty in Magnitsky's death.

The U.S. visa restrictions were put in place without official notification to the Russians. The official response, which followed the next day, was just as sharp. According to Mikhail Fedotov, the head of President's Human Rights Council, the prosecution of Mr. Magnitsky's killers should be left to the Russian government. He also hinted that unless the US stopped to interfere with Russian internal affairs, "the unpleasant consequences" would be possible. Some of the Russian officials were more specific and threatened to stop the cooperation between two countries in Afganistan, Iran and North Korea and to impose similar visa sanctions on American officials in return. Later, Prime Minister Putin pulled the "cold war" rhetorics by calling the U.S. an economic "parasite".

Despite all these diplomatic sparrings that put the whole "reset" policy under threat, it looks like the White House is quite serious this time. Obama's proclamation sends a clear message by saying that "those deemed to have committed serious human rights abuses while in other jurisdictions" would not be allowed to enter the United States. The proclamation also precludes entry for those who have attempted or conspired to commit such abuses. Obama also announced Thursday he is setting up an Interagency Atrocities Prevention Board to help detect and raise early warning signs to better prevent potential atrocities. The board would be set up within 120 days from Thursday to coordinate a holistic government approach to the prevention of atrocities "early, proactively and decisively".

Finally, Obama's administration is taking concrete measures to prove the U.S. enduring commitment to human rights protection in the world. Still, it might also be useful if the blacklists were published, so that everyone, including Russia, knew the names of the human rights abusers banned from entering the U.S.