A Magnitsky law for Europe

Financial Times

The US statute is a pro-Russian, not anti-Russian, act

Even by its own recent standards, Moscow’s response to the US Magnitsky law, which bars Russian officials accused of human rights violations from the US, has been ugly. President Vladimir Putin last week signed into law a ban on US citizens adopting Russian children. In effect, this strands thousands of Russia’s most vulnerable citizens in often appalling orphanages, as hostages to US-Russian relations.

The Kremlin clearly hopes, in part, to persuade other countries not to follow the US. They should not be cowed. For Moscow’s reaction also reflects just how these measures have hit home. Many Russian officials hold property and assets in the west, travel back and forth, and send their children to schools there. So a visa ban and asset freeze on those with at least prima facie cases to answer over rights abuses or criminal activity is a highly effective sanction.

The Magnitsky case, moreover, is egregious, well documented and encapsulates the darker side of Putinism. Tax officials used the shell of an investment fund, whose founder had been mysteriously barred from Russia, as a vehicle to steal $230m from the state. When the fund found out and presented evidence, the authorities did not prosecute anyone implicated. Instead, they arrested the lawyer investigating it, Sergei Magnitsky, and accused him of orchestrating the fraud himself. In jail, he was denied treatment for serious stomach problems and eventually beaten to death.

Even now the case has attracted international opprobrium, Russia has refused to back down. Instead it has launched an absurd posthumous prosecution of Mr Magnitsky for tax evasion. Moscow’s failure to act against the real suspects is at best bloody-mindedness. At worst, it suggests they have high-level protectors, who risk being dragged down with them.

Russia retorts that the Magnitsky Act is anti-Russian. Yet it targets specific officials accused of stealing from the Russian budget. The US is also accused of proclaiming individuals to be guilty without trial. But any country can decide it is unwilling to admit certain individuals, without any pronouncement of guilt or innocence.

For the Magnitsky measures to have maximum impact, however, Europe should follow suit. Some parliaments, including the UK, the Netherlands and Sweden, have started pressing governments to adopt equivalent measures. Visa bans imposed by any member of the border-free Schengen zone would at least bar the officials from travel to all 25 members.

Most effective of all would be an EU-wide visa ban and asset freeze. This could be adopted relatively easily, given sufficient political will, as a decision by its Council of Ministers – as has been done with officials from Belarus. The Kremlin is propagandising that Europe’s economic problems represent a broader failure of its governance and value systems. Even as it grapples with the eurozone crisis, the EU should prove such assertions wrong – and show it is still ready to defend and project the values upon which it was built.

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