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24th Jun 2021

US visa ban on Russian officials poses questions for EU

The US has quietly imposed a visa ban on Russian officials believed to have played a part in the murder of lawyer Sergey Magnitsky, posing questions about EU handling of the affair.

A state department memo confirms that most or all of the 60 officials implicated in the Magnitsky conspiracy have been red-flagged in the Consular Lookout and Support System (Class), a namecheck database used to give or decline visas.

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  • Clinton and Russian foreign minister Lavrov in July. Browder: 'It is a major precedent to create sanctions against human rights abusers from countries with normal diplomatic relations' (Photo: state.gov)

The non-public memo, dated 22 July, says: "[US secretary of state Hilary] Clinton has applied existing laws and authorities to implement the visa limitations on multiple individuals associated with the wrongful death of Sergey Magnitsky." It adds: "Individuals included on the list ... are already flagged in the visa adjudication (known as Class) system used by visa officers."

The list includes judges, interior ministry officials and secret service personnel said to have embezzled hundreds of millions of euros of Russian tax money and then murdered Magnitsky when he exposed the scam.

Two top names are Olga Stepanova, the 48-year-old head of the Moscow tax authority, and Viktor Voronin, the 53-year-old chief of the Russian secret service's (FSB's) economic espionage unit.

The US normally imposes sanctions with some fanfare, as with Libya and Syria. But the Magnitsky move was kept quiet in order not to create a diplomatic row.

The memo was sent to senators working on a bill which could give Congress new powers to request travel bans and asset freezes on foreign human rights abusers. The memo noted that the so-called 'Magnitsky bill' could provoke a retaliation.

It says: "Senior Russian government officials have warned us that they will respond asymmetrically if this legislation passes. Their argument is that we cannot expect them to be our partner in supporting sanctions against countries like Iran, North Korea, and Libya, and sanction them at the same time. Russian officials have said that other areas of bilateral co-operation, including on transit to Afghanistan, could be jeopardised if this legislation passes."

Heidi Hautala, Finland's minister for international development and until recently the European Parliament's top deputy on human rights, told this website that EU capitals should follow Washington.

"It's a very smart solution because it targets the real perpetrators and not the whole country," she said. "The time has come for new [EU] targeted sanctions on the American model - it could also be a low-key solution, put in place by one of the Schengen countries."

Under the rules of the EU's passport-free Schengen zone - which covers 22 EU countries plus Iceland, Norway and Switzerland - if any one Schengen state red-flags a name all 25 must refuse that person a visa.

He said, she said

EU governments regularly complain to Russia about lack of results in the Magnitsky investigation. But they are wary of taking action.

Dutch foreign minister Uri Rosenthal earlier this month refused to ban the group-of-60 despite a unanimous vote by all 150 MPs in the lower house urging him to do so. Catherine Ashton's European External Action Service (EEAS) ignored a similar request by the European Parliament last December.

EEAS spokeswoman Maja Kocjancic on Tuesday (26 July) said there is currently no discussion of restrictive measures at EU level, adding: "What is needed first and foremost at this point is a proper conclusion of the ongoing investigations [inside Russia]."

For his part, Bill Browder, Magnitsky's former employer, a US-born venture capitalist who lives in the UK, welcomed the US visa ban.

"It is a major precedent to create sanctions against human rights abusers from countries with [which you have] normal diplomatic relations. If this had been in place before, you wouldn't have seen the Western-approved excesses that led to revolutions in places like Egypt and Tunisia," he said.

Magnitsky, a 37-year-old father-of-two, died in jail in 2009 when his abdominal membrane burst because he was denied medication for pancreatitis.

This story was updated at 11.45pm Brussels time on 26 July to add the EEAS statement

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