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Eleven Years Later, Sergei Magnitsky Matters More Than Ever


July 16, 2020

The past two weeks have seen notable developments in the world of human rights sanctions. First, on July 6, 2020, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab announced the entry into force of the Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations 2020, the United Kingdom’s first “autonomous” (i.e., independent) human rights sanctions regime. Secretary Raab then designated the first 49 individuals and entities sanctioned under the regulations. Second, on July 9, 2020, the United States government sanctioned a Chinese government entity and Chinese government officials in connection with serious human rights abuses against the Uighurs and other ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang region. Four days later, China’s foreign ministry announced that Beijing planned “to impose reciprocal sanctions” on several U.S. officials. Connecting the events in the U.K., U.S. and China is a Russian man: Sergei Magnitsky.

Magnitsky was a 37 -year-old Russian tax lawyer working for Bill Browder, founder and CEO of Hermitage Capital Management, an investment fund actively involved in Russia. In 2008, Magnitsky discovered that senior Russian government officials had stolen Hermitage’s investment companies and then illegally obtained a $230 million tax refund from the Russian treasury. Magnitsky proceeded to testify against those officials. One month later, in November 2008, Russian authorities arrested him, charged him with tax evasion (he and others argued that the evidence against him was fabricated) and placed him in pre-trial detention.

While detained, Magnitsky was treated with a complete lack of humanity and decency. As determined by the European Court of Human Rights, Magnitsky was kept in “severely overcrowded” facilities whose cells were in a “deplorable sanitary condition.” The court held that officers subjected him to “inhuman and degrading treatment,” extended his detention on insufficient grounds, and, that by “depriving Mr. Magnitsky of important medical care, the domestic authorities unreasonably put his life in danger.” On November 16, 2009, Magnitsky, still in detention, died. He is survived by his wife and two children.

After hearing Magnitsky’s story from Browder, Senators Benjamin Cardin and John McCain sought to hold those responsible for his death to account. The issue was particularly poignant for Senator McCain, tortured during parts of his five-and-a-half years as a POW in Vietnam. The vision of many came to fruition on December 14, 2012, when President Barrack Obama signed the Russia and Moldova Jackson-Vanik Repeal and Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012, known as the Magnitsky Act, into law. The legislation, co-authored by the senators, imposes sanctions on each person the president identifies as “responsible for the detention, abuse, or death of Sergei Magnitsky,” as well as those responsible for “gross violations of internationally recognized human rights” in the Russian Federation.

Once identified, a person is banned from entering or remaining in the United States (executed by the Department of State) and all their United States-based “property and interests in property” are frozen (executed by the Department of the Treasury). Currently, 54 individuals and 1 entity are sanctioned under the Magnitsky Act, with the most recent sanctions against five individuals coming on May 16, 2019 (please see here and here).

Seeking to hold accountable, not just Russian officials, but all those involved in human rights abuse and corruption, Senators Cardin and McCain co-authored a second human rights sanctions law: the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. Signed by President Obama in 2016, the act’s reach was expanded in December 2017 when President Donald Trump issued Executive Order 13818. Global Magnitsky sanctions (similar to Magnitsky sanctions) apply to any foreign person (which includes an entity):

  • responsible for or engaged in serious human rights abuse; or
  • who is a current or former government official, or a person acting on their behalf, and responsible for or engaged in corruption.

Currently, 200 individuals and entities are sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Act. Furthermore, nine countries and territories, including Canada, have followed the U.S. lead in enacting Magnitsky and Global Magnitsky-like sanctions and are helping create a global network to hold human rights violators and those involved in corruption accountable. In an important development, the United Kingdom joined this list last week when it implemented the Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations 2020 (GHR). As Secretary Raab said, “sanctions are most effective when they are backed by coordinated, collective, action.”

The U.K. government fashioned GHR after the Global Magnitsky Act, and it functions essentially the same way. GHR, like the Global Magnitsky Act, authorizes financial and immigration sanctions for those involved in “serious” human rights abuses. Under GHR, a “serious” human rights abuse is one that violates an individual’s (1) “right to life,” (2) “right not to be subjected to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” or (3) “right to be free from slavery, not to be held in servitude or required to perform forced or compulsory labor.”

Secretary Raab then announced the first wave of sanctions under GHR. The sanctions target 47 individuals and two entities:

  • 25 Russian nationals involved in the torture and death of Sergei Magnitsky;
  • 20 Saudi nationals involved in the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi;
  • Two high ranking Myanmar military generals involved in the systemic violence and repression against the Rohingya people and other ethnic minorities; and
  • Two organizations involved in the forced labor, torture, and murder taking place in North Korea’s gulags.

Further sanctions, possibly against Chinese officials responsible for the new Hong Kong National Security Law, are expected in the coming months. If implemented, such sanctions would add to the growing hostility between China and the United Kingdom (see).

Just three days after Secretary Raab’s announcement, the United States, pursuant to the Global Magnitsky Act and EO 13818, sanctioned Chinese officials involved in the systemic repression of the Uighur people. This repression includes the mass and arbitrary detention of between 800,000 to 2 million Uighurs and other Muslims in reeducation camps, with many of these camps located in Xinjiang (northwest China). The Associated Press also recently published a report highlighting the Chinese government’s practice of forcing “intrauterine devices, sterilization and even abortion on hundreds of thousands” of Uighur women “as part of a sweeping campaign to curb its Muslim population.”

Many countries, including the United States, have denounced China’s actions. Then, on July 9, the U.S. government took concrete steps to punish the Chinese government when the Departments of State and the Treasury sanctioned the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau and four current or former government officials. These are the first United States sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act against Chinese officials for their treatment of the Uighurs. Expectedly, the Chinese government did not take well to the sanctions, arguing that they “severely interfere[] in China’s internal affairs” and “damage[] China-U.S. relations.” The Chinese government also decided to impose corresponding sanctions on the: Congressional-Executive Commission on China, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, and Representative Chris Smith.

Recent events in London, Washington, and Beijing show how human rights sanctions are likely to play an important role in shaping international relations in the coming years. Yet, amidst the growing tensions between key international actors, we must not forget the victims: Sergei Magnitsky, Jamal Khashoggi, the Rohingya, the people of North Korea and the Uighurs. Thanks to a brave Russian lawyer, the United States and a growing list of nations are holding “human rights abusers and corrupt individuals accountable for their heinous crimes.

DISCLAIMER: McCain Institute is a nonpartisan organization that is part of Arizona State University. The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent an opinion of the McCain Institute.

Publish Date
July 16, 2020