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Urges passage of Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act; calls Russia’s actions on Syria “unacceptable”

(Washington, D.C.) – U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on European Affairs, joined other senators today on the floor of the Senate to discuss human rights in Russia and the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act (S. 1039), which she helped introduce as an original cosponsor.

Below are Shaheen’s remarks, as prepared for delivery:

Mr. President – I want to begin by thanking my colleagues, Senator Cardin and Senator Wicker, for coming down to the floor today to raise this important human rights issue.  Your efforts are extremely timely given the ongoing transformational events happening on the ground in Russia today. 

We have seen historic demonstrations on the streets of Moscow over the last several months.  Ordinary Russian citizens – fed up with nearly a decade of corruption and of their rights being ignored – have courageously taken to the streets to demand that their voices be heard. 

The fraudulent Duma elections and the cynical and manipulative decision by Prime Minister Putin to return to the Presidency have re-awakened civil society throughout Russia.  As a leading Russian social activist, Alexei Navalny wrote from his jail cell following the peaceful December demonstrations, “We all have the only weapon we need, and the most powerful: that is the sense of self-respect.”

Today, as we call for justice for human rights abuses in Russia, we also stand with those brave Russian citizens who risk much in calling for their rights to be respected.  As we have seen throughout this last year of upheaval around the globe, the rising voice of a public driven to peaceful protest can be deafening.  Prime Minister Putin and his regime would be wise to listen to the people of Russia.

I also want to thank Senator Cardin, Senator Wicker, and 28 Senate cosponsors for their leadership in pressing for passage of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act.  As a cosponsor of this strong, bipartisan legislation, I would like to associate myself with much of what has already been said on the floor today.

The case of Mr. Magnitsky is a tragic one.  Mr. Magnitsky was falsely imprisoned, beaten, denied medical care and ultimately killed while in Russian custody.  Yet, to this day, no one has been held to account for his tragic and unnecessary killing.

We stand here today to press for accountability in Mr. Magnitsky’s death; however, I want to reiterate that this is more than simply a question of one man’s tragic case. 

The State Department’s human rights report for this year describes numerous violations, including attacks on journalists, physical abuse of citizens, harsh prison conditions, politically-motivated imprisonments, and other government harassment and violence.  The European Court of Human Rights has issued more than 210 judgments holding Russia responsible for grave human rights violations, including abductions, killings, and torture in Chechnya and throughout the northern Caucasus.

There are many more cases like Magnitsky, which is why the bill before us is so important.  It seeks to ensure that no human rights abusers in Russia or elsewhere in the world are granted the privilege of traveling to this country or utilizing our financial system.

As Chair of the Subcommittee on European Affairs, I was pleased to preside over a hearing on the Magnitsky bill and on the state of human rights in Russia.  I want to thank Chairman Kerry for helping to make the hearing possible.  We had a constructive conversation with State Department officials and heard unanimous support for the legislation from an impressive panel of human rights activists and Russia experts. 

We have also received letters from leading human rights and civil society leaders in Russia calling on the Senate to pass the Magnitsky bill (I would like to submit a few of them here for the record).  Around the world, governments are also taking up this important call.  The European Parliament, Canada and the Netherlands are considering similar pieces of legislation. 

And, this summer, the U.S. State Department barred dozens of Russian officials from traveling to the U.S. over their involvement in the death of Mr. Magnitsky.  I want to commend the Administration and particularly Secretary Clinton for this decision and for her strong words condemning the recent fraudulent elections in Russia.

Late last year, the Senate also took an important step in calling attention to human rights and the rule of law in Russia by confirming Dr. Michael McFaul as the U.S. Ambassador to Moscow.  Ambassador McFaul – a renowned human rights and democracy expert – has already made quite a splash in Russia.  McFaul decided to meet with Russian opposition leaders on his second day in the job to offer his support for democratic reform and civil society in the country.  In perhaps the shortest diplomatic honeymoon in Ambassadorial history, Dr. McFaul was viciously criticized in the government-controlled Russian media less than 48 hours into his tenure.

Despite all these efforts, I believe there is more we can do to support human rights, civil society and freedom of expression in Russia.  Passing the Magnitsky bill this year is one of them.  In the midst of an election year and at a time of difficult partisanship, I believe this is one effort both sides of the aisle can agree on. We stand here today unambiguously for rule of law, democracy and respect for human rights in Russia, and I hope our colleagues in the Congress and at the State Department will work constructively in the months ahead to pass this critical piece of legislation.    

Before I yield the floor, I think it is important to call attention to a particularly egregious act committed by the Russian government in recent days.  As many of you know, Russia vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution aimed at halting the ongoing violence in Syria. 

Today, more than 25,000 people have fled Syria and more than 7,000 innocent Syrians have died at the hands of President Assad’s murderous regime.  Despite Syria’s growing isolation, Russia continues to harbor and arm the Syrian regime and provide cover to these despicable acts of state-sponsored violence.  This is unacceptable.  I hope in the days ahead, Russia and China will reconsider their serious mistake and work with the rest of the international community to end this terrible violence. 

Again, I want to thank Senator Cardin for his leadership on this important human rights issue, and I look forward to working with you as we move forward.

Thank you, Mr. President.  I yield the floor.