More Details on Trump, Russia, and the Mysterious Magnitsky Connection

Publication Type: 
Other Writing
Publication Date: 
July 19, 2017

As reported Monday by Rob Berschinski and Adam Nagy, the Magnitsky Act is back in the news in connection with media reporting on the June 2016 meeting between Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya and Donald Trump Jr. prior to the election. The meeting was apparently originally arranged to convey damaging information about Presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton; as it turns out, it may have been aimed at getting the Magnitsky sanctions loosened…. (The legal implications of the meeting under U.S. campaign finance laws (52 U.S. 30121is discussed here).  In the emails, Veselnitskaya is described as a “Russian government attorney,” although she claims to be a private attorney; it now appears that a Soviet intel officer was also in attendance. Veselnitskaya has been at the center of efforts by Russia to repeal the Magnitsky Act, which may have been the ultimate objective for the pre-election meeting, including through her client the “Human Rights Accountability Global Initiative Foundation” (HRAGI). HRAGI’s mandate is ostensibly to restart U.S. adoptions of Russian children, a system that was halted in retaliation for the Magnitsky sanctions.

The Magnitsky Act (formally known as the Russia & Moldova Jackson Vanik Repeal and Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012) was passed with overwhelming bipartisan support following the death of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in a Russian prison.  (See further background below and in Rob & Adam’s post). The legislation allows the President to designate individuals for travel bans and financial sanctions if they were responsible for the mistreatment of Magnitsky or otherwise concealed or benefited from his death.  In addition, individuals deemed “responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights committed against individuals (A) seeking to expose illegal activity carried out by [Russian officials] or (B) to … defend or promote internationally recognized human rights and freedoms” may also be designated for sanctions. Currently, there are over 40 names on the published sanctions list, although other designations may remain classified.

By way of background, lawyer Sergei Magnitsky had been representing U.S.-citizen-turned-British-subject Bill Browder after the identity of his investment fund—Hermitage Capital Management—was stolen to commit tax fraud in a massive scheme involving Russian tax officials and police.  After exposing the plot, Magnitsky was detained on bogus accusations of tax evasion by the very individuals whom he identified as responsible and died in pre-trial detention. He had experienced severe health issues while in custody that went untreated, and authoritative accounts indicate that he was also tortured prior to his death. Several doctors were charged with involuntary manslaughter and medical negligence, but no one was ever convicted. Avenging Magnitsky’s death became a personal crusade of Browder, who lobbied Congress to pass retaliatory legislation.  Browder will apparently testify before Congress at some point this week on Veselnitskaya’s ties to the Russian government.

The aim of the 2012 law—which largely signaled the end of the so-called “reset” with Russia—was to sanction Russian officials deemed to be responsible for Magnitsky’s death. (It also normalized trade relations with Russia by repealing obsolete legislation that had tied trade relations to the emigration of minorities to the former Soviet Union). President Obama, who initially opposed the legislation on grounds that it would complicate the bilateral relationship, designated a number of Russian officials for financial sanctions and travel bans under the Act in 2013, although not enough according to some members of Congress.  Additional names were added by President Trump in 2017.

In retaliation to the passage of the Magnitsky Act, Russia enacted its own legislation, ending U.S. adoption of Russian children and imposing a travel ban on a number of U.S. personnel whom it identified as being responsible for human rights violations.  Among those sanctioned was Preet Bharara, the former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, who successfully prosecuted Victor Bout, a Russian arms dealer and enabler of violence in Africa and Colombia, for conspiring to kill U.S. citizens.  Russia had vehemently protested the case. Bharara was in the news more recently when he refused to step down upon the election of Donald Trump, prompting the President to fire him after apparently assuring him in a series of conversations described as “unusual” and “disturbing” that he could keep his position.

Read the full post at Just Security