Friday

26th Feb 2021

Opinion

EU 'Magnitsky Act' must bear its proper name

  • Sergei Magnitsky: gave his life to fight corruption in Russia (Photo: Hermitage Capital)

Nine years ago this Friday (16 November) my Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky was murdered in a Russian prison after being brutally tortured for 358 days.

He was killed in retaliation for exposing a major corruption scheme by the government of Russian president Vladimir Putin. He was 37 years old.

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  • Bill Browder (r) with Magnitksy's widow and son in European Parliament (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

Since that day, I've made it my life's work to get justice for Sergei. I started my campaign hoping to get justice in Russia, but that proved impossible.

After his murder, the Russian authorities covered up the crime, exonerated and promoted the people involved, and put Magnitsky on trial three years after he died, in the first trial of a dead man in Russian history.

When it became obvious that I could not get justice in Russia, I sought justice in the West. I came up with an idea to freeze assets and ban visas of the people who killed Magnitsky and who do similar types of abuses all over the world.

After nine years of campaigning, there are now six countries in the world, including the US and Canada, which have legislation called the Global Magnitsky Act.

When I brought the idea of the Magnitsky Act to the Dutch parliament in June 2011, the parliament was very supportive and voted 150 to zero calling on the Dutch government to impose a Dutch Magnitsky Act.

At the time, Frans Timmermans was one of my parliamentary supporters who helped push this initiative through. Shortly afterwards, he became the foreign minister.

I was elated. I thought this would mean the Netherlands would be the next country to pass the Magnitsky Act.

I was wrong.

As soon as he became foreign minister, he switched sides and blocked any progress of the Magnitsky sanctions legislation in the Netherlands. He never explained himself to me, but I can only assume he was afraid to upset president Putin.

I thought maybe we would have better luck at a European level and went to Brussels in the spring of 2014.

Like my experience at the Dutch Parliament, the European Parliament was enthusiastically supportive and in April 2014 voted unanimously calling on the European Council to adopt an EU Magnitsky Act.

Again, when it went to the head of European External Action Service, Federica Mogherini, she blocked the initiative saying she thought it was a bad idea, presumably also not wanting to upset Putin.

After several more unsuccessful attempts at the EU, I was told informally that this would never get off the ground at an EU level, and if I wanted any chance of success I should go back to the member states.

I did exactly that and things started to work - in the last two years, Britain, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania now have their own versions of the Magnitsky Act.

Dutch MPs

I also re-engaged with my supporters in Dutch parliament and this year they went to the Dutch government minus Frans Timmermans.

The response this time was different. The Dutch government said: "Good idea, but we only want to do it if the whole EU does it." Apparently, they thought that by kicking it back to the EU, this "Magnitsky problem" would go away.

However, the Magnitsky supporters in the Dutch parliament called the government's bluff.

They said: "Great. We will put a legislative motion that the government tries to get EU Magnitsky legislation, and if it doesn't succeed in five months, then it has to introduce a Dutch Magnitsky legislation."

The government protested, but when the motion went for a vote, it passed on 3 April 2018 by 81 votes against 69

The liberal VVD party was the main party to vote against, joined by the far right and the far left. Everybody else voted for it.

Five months after the motion passed, the government had still done nothing. Members of parliament challenged foreign minister Stef Blok on why there was no EU Magnitsky Act and he grudgingly began a Magnitsky initiative.

Several weeks ago, I learned about the Dutch initiative through contacts at the European Commission in Brussels.

I received a copy of the Dutch government's proposal. Indeed, there was a genuine initiative, but I was shocked to see that in the Dutch government's grudging acquiescence to do a Magnitsky Act, they deleted Sergei Magnitsky's name from the entire exercise.

It was as if they wanted to pretend that Magnitsky did not exist and had nothing to do with this.

Why did they do this? It's hard to say, but I do know that Putin hates the Magnitsky Act more than anything.

He has made repealing it his single largest foreign policy priority. More than anything, he'd like to erase Sergei Magnitsky's name from history.

In 2016, the Kremlin's emissary, lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya (the same lawyer who went to Trump Tower to meet with the US president's son, Donald Trump Jr), spent thousands of dollars lobbying in Washington trying to take Sergei Magnitsky's name off the Global Magnitsky Act.

It was a resounding failure.

Appeasement?

It appears that the Dutch government, in leaving Sergei Magnitsky's name out of this ground-breaking legislation, is now picking up where Veselnitskaya left off.

After Russia's invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine, its downing of flight MH-17, its chemical weapons attack in the UK, and its cyberattacks against Western governments and international institutions, including in The Hague, nobody should be doing Putin any favours, least of all the Dutch government.

I would be immoral and unjust to try to delete the name Sergei Magnitsky from the legislation that his death has initiated, in some seeming attempt at Russian appeasement.

Next week on 20 November, the Dutch foreign ministry will be hosting the 28 EU member states to discuss their 'non-Magnitsky' proposal.

Given the unpleasant history, I would hope they use this opportunity to make a genuine effort for the Magnitsky Act to actually happen, and more importantly that they would put Sergei's name back on the law.

Sergei Magnitsky gave his life to fighting corruption and it is the least we can do to remember him and honour his sacrifice in the name of the legislation his heroic and courageous acts have inspired.

Bill Browder is the head of the Magnitsky Global Justice Campaign, a London-based initiative

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

New EU human rights sanctions to focus on Africa

A new EU sanctions regime for human rights abusers ought to focus on the kinds of crimes most readily associated with African conflicts, the Dutch foreign minister has indicated.

The Magnitsky Act - and its name

It is disappointing that so many MEPs in the Socialist and Green group caved in to Russian interests, in fear of challenging a plutocratic regime, by saying 'no' to naming the Magnitsky legislation by its rightful name: Magnitsky.

EU sanctions regime cannot be an 'EU Magnitsky Act'

The debate about the choice of name should not boil down to a political muscle show against Hungary, which opposes the reference to Magnitsky because of its political relations with the Russian government.

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