Maryland Senator Benjamin L. Cardin has just dropped a bomb on Russia’s corrupt elite. In a letter this week to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Cardin called for the denial of U.S. visas to a list of 60 top Moscow law-enforcement officials and bureaucrats—including Russia’s deputy interior minister—over their alleged involvement in the arrest, torture, and prison death of tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. (The State Department has not yet responded officially to the request.) At the time of his imprisonment, Magnitsky had been attempting to expose a $230 million tax fraud by crooks in the police and the tax ministry. “One month after his testimony,” says the Cardin letter, “he was arrested in front of his wife and two young children in his Moscow home by a team of Interior Ministry troopers reporting directly to the officers Mr. Magnitsky had accused.” Magnitsky died in Moscow’s infamous Butirskaya prison in February. After several years in which Kremlin critics—especially investigators—have been wiped out, Magnitsky’s case has deeply disturbed Russia’s liberals and even reached the attention of President Dmitry Medvedev, though none of the culprits has yet been arrested.
On the face of it, Cardin’s move might seem like nothing more than a grand gesture toward the sorry state of human rights in Russian courts and prisons. But in reality, it’s a potential bombshell for the country’s crooked bureaucrats and cops. According to ++a recent study[[http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/publication/814/long_war_against_corruption.html]]++ by the Russian think tank Indem, the country’s unscrupulous officials net a whopping $300 billion annually in bribes and kickbacks. And much of that money is ++salted away[[http://www.transparency.org/news_room/in_focus/2009/gcb2009]]++ in overseas bank accounts and real estate, says Transparency International’s Elena Panfilova. Wealthy Russians—including bureaucrats—have become famous around the globe for their big-spending ways. So being denied travel is a potent sanction: even though it won’t stop the officials from accessing their accounts, it will put a serious dent in their ability to enjoy them, especially since Cardin also called for the ban to extend to the individuals’ families and dependents.
If the State Department heeds Cardin’s call, it will be a huge victory for Magnitsky’s boss, U.S. investor Bill Browder, whose agitation on the subject led to the Cardin letter. Browder will be campaigning for a similar ban to be enacted not just by the U.S. but by the E.U.’s Schengen visa area, too. His cause will doubtless be boosted by the testimony of top human-rights watchers in Russia, who last week called Magnitsky’s death, which resulted from a lack of medical care in jail, “deliberate torture.” A commission of independent experts set up by Medvedev is slated to start work on the case next week, which will certainly keep Magnitsky’s name and his fate in the international spotlight.
Cardin’s letter could also have ramifications beyond the Magnitsky case. If used intelligently—as the U.S. has previously done, when it banned Kremlin-favored oligarchs like Oleg Deripaska, who runs an Russian investment firm—denial of visas to Russia’s most venal officials could be a truly effective move by the West to help Medvedev in his much-vaunted, but so far ineffective, campaign against corruption. Confiscating assets and freezing bank accounts is the normal way to shake the bad habits of midlevel bureaucrats, but it requires slow-moving due-process procedures and long court hearings, fought every step of the way, by top defense lawyers. Denying visas, though, is an administrative sanction which can be imposed without explanation, and it hits Russian kleptocrats where it hurts—something the Russian judicial system hasn’t seemed capable of doing so far.