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19th Jan 2018

Investigation

MEPs demand EU sanctions over Magnitsky murder, again

  • Kremlin towers. The death of Russian attorney Sergei Magnitsky sparked international condemnation, but no action (Photo: davidgordillo)

MEPs on the European Parliament's foreign affairs committee have piled fresh political pressure on their governments to impose sanctions on Russian officials linked to the murder of whistleblower accountant Sergei Magnitsky.

In a resolution drafted by Estonian liberal MEP Kristiina Ojuland, MEPs on Thursday (20 September) by 62 votes against two called on EU governments to make a list of over 60 suspected officials and to impose an EU-wide visa ban and asset-freeze on the lot.

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The asset freeze is to extend to the alleged culprits' families.

The move would see the EU "take a coherent and pro-active stance on ... serious human rights violations in Russia," the resolution said.

Speaking after the vote, Ojuland said that imposing the sanctions would "put real pressure on Russian authorities to start taking criticism on human rights seriously" and that the measures would be "a necessary step against corruption and human rights violators."

Magnitksy was allegedly tortured and beaten to death in Moscow's Butryka jail in 2009.

He had been arrested 11 months earlier after exposing a multi-million-dollar tax fraud by high-level Kremlin officials and FSB intelligence officers.

The resolution is the third time the EU parliament has called for action in the case.

It passed similar motions in 2010 and 2011.

Five national parliaments in Europe, as well as the Strasbourg-based human rights watchdog, the Council of Europe, have also condemned Russia's handling of the affair.

In April, European Council chief Herman Van Rompuy weighed into the debate, telling the then Russian President Dimitri Medvedev that the case had "come to symbolise the state of the rule of law and judiciary in the Russian Federation."

EU foreign ministries and the EU's foreign service do not want to touch the issue with a barge pole, however.

EU diplomats previously told this website the Union cannot get involved in other countries' internal criminal procedures because it would open the door to sanctions against too many places.

But pro-Magnitsky campaigners, such as his former employer, the UK-based venture capitalist Bill Browder, say the real reason is that they fear Russian reprisals.

For its part, Internet advocacy group Avaaz also on Thursday handed MEPs a petition signed by 575,000 European citizens demanding EU-Magnitsky action.

Speaking with EUobserver, Avaaz campaign director Stephanie Brancaforte described the case as "a litmus test on whether the EU is serious about combating human rights violations." She called on the EU and the US to confront the Russian regime after "a long history of turning a blind eye to impunity and corruption."

The case has emerged as an issue in the US presidential campaign.

The so-called Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, which is designed to put sanctions not just on Magnitsky officials but on any official from any country linked credibly to human rights abuses, at first gained cross-party support in both houses of Congress.

But it is now at the centre of a political battle, with Republican congressmen keen to to tie it to a vote on a bilateral trade deal between Russia and the US.

In a press statement last week, Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney said that he would only normalise trade with Russia if the Magnitsky bill is enacted and condemned what he described as "the Obama administration's attempts to scuttle the Magnitsky bill."

"As [Russian leader] Putin obstructs US funding of rights groups, Obama should stop opposing targeted sanctions on Putin's rights abusers," Ken Roth, the head of US-based NGO Human Rights Watch, tweeted on Friday, referring to Russia's expulsion of USaid, the state department's foreign pro-democracy branch.

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