US, Russia lock horns in rights spat

The US Congress drew a furious response from the Kremlin on Thursday by passing legislation that targeted human rights abusers in the prison death of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.

Voting 92-4, the US Senate approved establishing permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) with Russia, ending Cold War-era restrictions, but also requiring sanctions against anyone connected to Magnitsky's death.

Moscow immediately called the action "a theater of the absurd" and vowed to retaliate, turning what would have been a boost in trade relations between the two powers into another source of friction.

The legislation, which also grants the same trade status to Moldova, now goes to the White House for the signature of President Barack Obama, who praised bipartisan work on the bill and said he would sign it.

Independent Senator Joe Lieberman said the Magnitsky measure will "punish human rights violators in Russia today" and send a "very powerful message" to leaders in Moscow.

"With passage of the Magnitsky act, we are saying to people in Russia who are striving to secure their fundamental freedoms: we have not and we will not forget you," Lieberman said.

"We will stand in solidarity with the millions in Russia who have a single goal, which is a democratic Russia that respects the rule of law and fundamental freedoms and that is free of corruption."

The new legislation would compel the US government to freeze the assets of anyone tied to Magnitsky's 2009 death and deny them entry to the United States.

The lawyer was arrested after alleging that Russian officials had systematically orchestrated a massive theft through fraudulent tax refunds from the state.

The Russian foreign ministry warned that the US law "will have a very negative influence on the future of our bilateral education," and said Moscow would be "forced to retaliate."

Even before the Senate vote, Russian officials had made clear they would regard sanctions against Russian officials as a "hostile and unilateral measure."

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev last week described the move as a "mistake."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov sought "clarification" from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during a meeting Thursday in Dublin, Ireland, according to a US official.

The repeal of the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment was meant to reflect the changes in the world with Russia's ascension to the World Trade Organization.

Obama noted how US businesses stood to gain by Washington granting PNTR to its former Cold War rival.

"The legislation will ensure that American businesses and workers are able to take full advantage of the WTO rules and market access commitments that the United States worked so hard to negotiate," he said in a statement.

"We are also one step closer to realizing job-creating export opportunities and leveling the playing field for American workers, farmers, ranchers and service providers."

US officials offered similar praise, including US Trade Representative Ron Kirk and acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank, who predicted that US exports will now surge to one of the world's largest economies.

Some experts estimate that American exports to Russia will double once the restrictions are lifted.

But several lawmakers focused more on the need to prod Russia to improve its rights record.

"This culture of impunity in Russia has been growing worse and worse," said Republican Senator John McCain during debate on the measure.

Afterward McCain said the bill was "sending a signal to (President) Vladimir Putin and the Russian kleptocracy that these kinds of abuses of human rights will not be tolerated without us responding in some appropriate fashion."

With the White House having opposed turning the trade bill into a referendum on Russia's human rights record amid already-strained ties, Obama offered tepid support for the rights element of the legislation.

"My administration will continue to work with Congress and our partners to support those seeking a free and democratic future for Russia and promote the rule of law and respect for human rights around the world," he said.

Under Jackson-Vanik, the president has been required to certify to Congress every year that Russia meets human rights standards when it comes to permitting Jewish emigration.

Long a thorn in relations, the law came into question when Russia joined the WTO in August. This put Jackson-Vanik in conflict with WTO mandates that any advantage granted by one member must be extended to all.

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