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US Senate Passes Magnitsky Act, Russia Trade Law

US Senate Passes Magnitsky Act, Russia Trade Law

The U.S. Senate on Thursday passed a landmark trade bill with Russia along with the associated Magnitsky Act that penalizes Russian officials deemed by Washington to have violated human rights.

The legislation was overwhelmingly approved by the Senate 92 votes to four, despite an earlier warning by U.S. National Foreign Trade Council (NFTC) that the legislation would most likely hurt Russia-U.S. trade and badly damage ties.

The bill will now be forwarded to President Barack Obama to sign it into law, as the measure was passed by the House of Representatives on June 7.

Obama has welcomed adoption of the bill by both Houses of the U.S. Congress, saying: "The legislation will ensure that American businesses and workers are able to take full advantage of the WTO rules and market access commitments that the United States worked so hard to negotiate."

"We are also one step closer to realizing job-creating export opportunities and leveling the playing field for American workers, farmers, ranchers, and service providers," he added in the statement issued after the Senate approved the measure.

Nevertheless, Russian Foreign Ministry described the Congressional approval of the Magnitsky Act as "a performance in the Theater of the Absurd," noting that any country can deny visas to anyone without enacting special legislation.

"Either Washington has forgotten what year it is or it thinks that the Cold War is not over yet," the Ministry said. "We must again remind the hyperactive opponents of the normal development of Russian-U.S. relations that their efforts look pathetic. However, the Russian side will have to respond."

Analysts believe the large bipartisan support for the bill despite the inclusion of the Magnitsky Act was mainly due to prevailing anger in both Houses of the U.S. Congress over continued human rights violations in Russia as well as Moscow's anti-American policies and the rift over the Syrian crisis.

The Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act imposes visa bans and asset freezes on Russian officials involved in the alleged torture and murder of 37-year-old Russian anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, as well as in other gross human rights abuses in Russia.

Magnitsky was arrested on tax evasion charges in November 2008, just days after accusing police investigators in a $230-million tax refund fraud. He died after almost a year later in the Matrosskaya Tishina pre-trial detention center in Moscow.

A probe into his death revealed that the lawyer, who was suffering from untreated pancreatitis and a heart condition, did not receive proper medical treatment. Rights activists pointed to multiple violations of the lawyer's rights during his arrest and detention, including signs that he was beaten by prison guards hours before his death.

Subsequently, the U.S. State Department issued visa bans on several dozen Russian officials in connection with the Magnitsky case in July 2011. In response, Russia imposed travel bans on several U.S. officials.

The wider trade bill adopted by the U.S. Senate on Thursday repeals a Cold War-era provision, known as the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which imposed restrictions on trade relations with Russia and Moldova. The long-obsolete measure linked U.S. trade relations with the former Soviet Union to the emigration of Jews and other Soviet minorities.

The latest developments follow Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) as its 156th member in August, after nearly two decades of accession process which began in June 1993.

Protocol on Russia's accession to the Marrakesh Agreement, the foundation document for WTO, was approved by the entire membership of the global trade body on December 16, 2011. Subsequently, President Vladimir Putin signed into law on July 21 a Parliamentary legislation that brought Russia's trading laws into compliance with the international standards set under the WTO.

In 2011, Russia was the world's ninth largest exporter, shipping $522 billion in goods and $54 billion in services to its trading partners. In the same period, Russia imported $323 billion in goods and $90 billion in services.

Russia's WTO accession effectively opens opportunities in the Russian market for foreign investors and exporters alike. It also lowers Russia's import tariffs and sets limits on export duty levels for a list of essential raw materials. Nevertheless, the U.S. was prevented from making use of the opportunity until now due to the Jackson-Vanik amendment.

by RTT Staff Writer

For comments and feedback: editorial@rttnews.com

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