Background Briefing on Implementation of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Official
Via Teleconference
December 29, 2014

MODERATOR: Thank you very much, Laurie, and welcome to everyone who has joined us for this background call today. As noted, this call will be on background, so no names or titles. It’s attributable to a senior State Department official, but just for everyone’s understanding, the person who will do the background call today is [Senior State Department Official]. But from here on out [Senior State Department Official] will be Senior State Department Official, and we will get started now, and I’ll turn the floor over to our briefer. Go ahead, please.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thank you, everyone, for joining the call. Today, Secretary Kerry transmitted to the Congress the third of our Magnitsky reports, or reports to Congress pursuant to the Magnitsky Act. This report included a list of four Russian officials newly added to the list. They will be – in fact, are as of now – subject to both a visa restriction, a ban on entry into the United States; and an asset freeze, in accordance with the Magnitsky Act. I believe you have the four names. Two are Russian officials who were implicated in the death and subsequent cover-up of the – of Sergei Magnitsky himself. Two are Chechen officials who were implicated in the kidnapping, torture, and later framing of a noted Chechen activist – a Mr. Kutayev -- earlier this year.

These four are the latest in – as I said earlier, are the latest in the – our listings pursuant to the Magnitsky Act. We have said throughout this process that we will continue to investigate new cases, both having to do with the death of Sergei Magnitsky himself, but also having to do with non-Magnitsky-related examples of gross violations of human rights, including extrajudicial killings, torture, or other actions.

In each Magnitsky list so far, we have combined those designations associated with Magnitsky himself with those associated with other gross human rights violations. The same is true in this case. The numbers of Magnitsky-related designations have dropped, you have noticed. This is partly – in fact, it is largely due to the fact that the numbers of individuals whom we can designate, whom we can tie through fact-based analysis to Magnitsky’s death and the subsequent cover-up of that death, will drop. We’re not done with that process, but it is going to become more of a challenge to designate Magnitsky-related individuals. And just as a matter of reality, our efforts will begin to turn to the gross violations of human rights, as in the case of the Chechen activist, Mr. Kutayev.

One other thing worth mentioning about the two Russian officials, Viktor Grin, deputy prosecutor general, and Andrei Strizhov, investigator under the investigative committee, who were, of course, designated because of their involvement in the death and cover-up of Magnitsky’s killing. In their particular case, it was related to the cover-up. They are also, and in addition to this, associated with arrests, prosecutions, and other problematic actions with respect to the Bolotnaya case. You remember the demonstrations in Bolotnaya Square in the beginning of 2012, after which – during which and after which people were rounded up and prosecuted. They were not designated under the Magnitsky Act because of this involvement, but it is a fact that they were involved in Bolotnaya cases, and one of them – Deputy Prosecutor General Grin – was also involved in the Khodorkovsky and Lebedev case.

And by the way, with respect to Mr. Grin’s involvement in the Magnitsky cover-up, specifically Grin was responsible for opening two posthumous cases against Magnitsky. They put Magnitsky on trial after – well after he was dead, which astonished us. We didn’t know it was possible. And in fact, it really isn’t possible under Russian law, as I understand it, except in response to the request of the family. And Magnitsky’s family has gone on record saying they did not request their family member to be put on trial again after he was dead. So Viktor Grin’s involvement of this strange – in fact bizarre – action was one that is particularly satisfying to those of us who want to see the Magnitsky Act implemented fairly.

I will finish up here and – at this point, and happily take your questions.

OPERATOR: Thank you. And ladies and gentlemen, if you would like to ask a question, press * then 1 on your touchtone phone. You will hear a tone indicating you’ve been placed in queue. You may remove yourself from the queue by pressing the # key. And if you are using a speakerphone, please pick up the handset before pressing the numbers. Once again, if you have a question, press * then 1 at this time. One moment for our first question.

MODERATOR: All right, Laurie. Please go ahead with the first question.

OPERATOR: It is from the line of Leandra Bernstein with RIA Novosti. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi. Just a question on the effectiveness of the Magnitsky sanctions. There have been some members of Congress who have – who’ve claimed that the Administration hasn’t been faithfully implementing the Magnitsky Act. So just your response on how effective you believe the implementation is, and then you made reference to further expanding the conditions to deal with the gross violations of human rights, so how effective you believe that will be.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I am aware of various views expressed by members of Congress, but for our part, the Executive Branch is happy to work with the Congress to see to it that the Magnitsky Act is implemented – not just once, not but – just twice, but over time. By the way, I should clarify what I said. This is the third list, the third time we have sent a list up to the Congress, but it is only technically the second report. There’s a technical difference, but I want to be clear.

We intend to continue to administer the Magnitsky Act. Specifically, we intend to pursue additional designations. I can’t make promises in advance as to the timing or the extent, but I can tell you that we are committed to continuing this process.

As to effectiveness, in any – in pursuit of any sustained human rights policy, results come unevenly and there tend to be tipping points. That is, our listing of individuals may have the indirect effect of putting Russian officials on notice that if they are involved in gross violations of human rights, trumped-up cases, false accusations, grotesque examples of misappropriate – mishandling of justice, such as putting a dead man on trial, under this law they may be held personally liable.

Now, this is not an ideal situation. In democracies, in the rule of law, governments and a free media inside the country are responsible for correcting mistakes and issuing reports – sometimes embarrassing to the host government when we make mistakes. But absent that process, the Magnitsky Act can serve as an admittedly imperfect tool to advance human rights and ultimately the cause of justice, which was, I believe, its intent. And it is that tool which we will attempt to advance, working with the Congress, with human rights communities, inside and outside Russia, and with the knowledge that now as in the Soviet period, a sustained, determined human rights policy can, in fact, be effective.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Laurie, would you make one more call for questions and explain how to lodge questions?

OPERATOR: Yes. If you do have questions, please press * then 1 on your touchtone phone.

MODERATOR: Okay, very good. We’ll take the next question then.

OPERATOR: And that comes from Carol Morello with The Washington Post. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you for doing this. So what is the total number of people, including those whose names you have not made public, who are on the list? And when you said that number is clearly going to diminish, I mean, realistically speaking, how many more people could we expect for you to put on the list in the future? Are we talking less than a dozen more to come, or can you just give us a ballpark figure on what might still be coming down the road? Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, the first part of your question is easy. There have been 34 individual designations so far under the Magnitsky Act in the three tranches of names we have provided to Congress. I won’t speak at all to the number of classified designations, if indeed there – I won’t even confirm that there are any, so that’s outside of this number.

I can’t give you a number, obviously, of how many designations there may be in the future, because increasingly our designations will be a reaction to events as they occur inside Russia, now and in – starting now and in the future – well, also in the recent past. But that depends – what we do depends on what happens in Russia. We’re not working according to a quota; we are working in response to actual events and our ability to link individuals with those actual events. We work very closely – the State Department works very closely with the Treasury Department, with the Justice Department to obtain information which can support a designation by linking an individual to actual conduct. And the factual basis has to be strong. I can’t, as I said, give you a number, but I can tell you that we will be working on implementing the Magnitsky Act in the future.

MODERATOR: All right, thank you. Operator, do we have any more calls in the queue?

OPERATOR: We have no additional questions.

MODERATOR: Okay. Well, then let me wrap up by thanking our briefer and by thanking all of you who participated in the call. Oh, let’s see, Senior Administration Official, would you be willing to entertain one final question?


MODERATOR: Okay, very good. Then, operator, why don’t you open the line for that one?

OPERATOR: And that will be from Paul Richter with The Los Angeles Times. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. I’d like to know what kind of response you expect from the Russians, if any, based on the way they’ve reacted in the past cases.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I – well, I expect that they will complain and they may threaten retaliation. They may actually retaliate. We’re aware – we are aware of retaliation they have taken in – throughout this year in response to other sanctions, particularly because of their aggression against Ukraine. So that wouldn’t surprise us, but it will not deter us from doing the right thing. And it is also true that the day will come in the future when we have better relations with Russia. I firmly believe that. It would be in the interests of both countries. But given Russian actions, that day is not today.

MODERATOR: All right. Well, that’s our last question, and I want to thank our briefer and thank all of the participants in the call, and remind once again that this call has been on background, so no names or titles, and attributable to a senior State Department official. Thanks very much, everyone, and until next time.