I have two heroes in the world: Sergei Magnitsky and John McCain.
Sergei Magnitsky, my Russian lawyer, is my hero because he was a Russian patriot who stood up to and exposed a massive $230 million government corruption scheme enacted against the Russian people—which we have since traced to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s network. In retaliation, Sergei was arrested in 2008 and tortured in an attempt to get him to retract his testimony against corrupt Russian government officials. He refused to perjure himself and bear false witness, and for that he was killed in police custody in Moscow.
In a world where no legal mechanisms existed to right the wrong of Sergei Magnitsky’s death, John McCain became my hero by creating a new tool for bringing Sergei’s killers and other human rights abusers to justice.
As I prepare to attend Senator McCain’s memorial service at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. on Saturday, remembering the humane and sympathetic way he addressed Sergei’s tragedy makes the senator’s passing even more heartbreaking.
This tool is known in the United States and around the world as the Magnitsky Act. The law allows the U.S. and other countries to freeze the assets and withhold the visas of people who are violating human rights in Russia.
Shortly after his murder in 2009, I went to Washington to tell Sergei Magnitsky’s story to whoever would listen. The common response was, “That’s a terrible story, we’re so sorry, but there’s nothing we can do about it. It’s very important that we don’t upset our relations with Russia right now.” At the time, the Obama Administration had launched something called the “Russian reset.” This effectively meant that the Administration didn’t want to disturb Russia by imposing genuine consequences for prickly issues like human rights or the murder of Sergei Magnitsky.
I was distraught by the brick wall that I’d encountered. But in the spring of 2010 I was lucky enough to get a 15-minute meeting with Senator McCain. He met me at the door of his office in the Russell Senate Office Building with a warm handshake and a hearty smile. I sat on the couch, and started telling him the story of Sergei’s whistleblowing and the horrific consequences he faced. He was so interested that he kept asking questions.
Very quickly our 15 minutes were up and I was nowhere near finished with the story. His secretary came into the room to say his next appointment was ready, and I worried that my opportunity was already gone. “I need some more time with Mr. Browder,” the senator said softly. His secretary left and McCain turned his attention back to me. “Please continue.”
The meeting went on for a full hour and all of his subsequent meetings were pushed back so he could take the time to hear Sergei’s story from start to finish. At the end, I asked whether he’d be willing to support the Magnitsky Act to impose sanctions on the Russian officials who killed Sergei Magnitsky. He said, “Of course I will,” adding that he’d do anything in his power to help get justice for Sergei Magnitsky.
Together with Democratic Senator Benjamin Cardin from Maryland, Senator McCain introduced the Magnitsky Act. This imposed asset freezes and visa sanctions on those who tortured and killed Sergei, as well as other Russians guilty of gross human rights violations. Because of the “reset,” the legislation encountered fierce resistance from the Obama Administration, but in Congress, Senator McCain’s gravitas and commitment to justice brought nearly everybody along. In the end, when it came for a vote, it passed the Senate 92-4 and the House 365-43. In spite of the administration’s misgivings, it was signed into law by President Obama on December 14, 2012.
There are now 49 Russians on the Magnitsky sanctions list, many of whom were involved in Sergei’s false arrest, torture, and murder. Most important, we know how effective this legislation has been by Putin’s shrill reaction. Shortly after his re-election in May, 2012, he declared that it was his most important foreign policy priority to make sure that the Magnitsky Act never became law. But it did.
Since then, the Magnitsky Act has become an obsession of Putin’s. He even went so far as to send an emissary to Trump Tower in June 2016 in an attempt to convince a future Trump administration that the Magnitsky Act should be repealed.
Because of the clear power of the Magnitsky Act in hitting dictators and kleptocrats where it hurts—in their bank accounts—Senator McCain wondered why Chinese, Venezuelan, or Uzbek human rights abusers enjoyed a better deal than Russian ones. Shouldn’t the Magnitsky Act apply to bad guys everywhere? This was the genesis of the Global Magnitsky Act, which was introduced by Senators McCain and Cardin in 2014.
Putin was extremely upset that the name “Magnitsky” was on this piece of global human rights legislation. In an effort to appease Putin, a draft of the bill without Magnitsky’s name was proposed. I was extremely upset and contacted Senator McCain, who was abroad and unaware of this development. He assured me, “Bill, there’s no way Sergei’s name won’t be on this legislation.”
He was true to his word. The Global Magnitsky Act passed the Senate unanimously and was signed into law on December 23, 2016. After it became law he called to tell me, “This was Sergei’s legacy, and it will save lives around the world.”
There are now 88 people and entities on the Global Magnitsky sanctions list. This is a veritable gallery of villains, spanning from Nicaragua to Myanmar to China. Thanks to Sergei Magnitsky’s sacrifice and John McCain’s passion for justice, a mechanism to get justice for victims of human rights abuse now exists.
The Magnitsky Act is not just Sergei’s legacy, it is also John McCain’s. God bless both of these men for changing the world for the better.
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