Note: This is the second of a two-part series of articles concerning the Magnitsky Act. To read the first article, go here.
The Magnitsky Act, which cut off Russian oligarchs' access to their American holdings as punishment for the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, represents a major wound to the Russian government's psyche - even more than the 2014 sanctions against the invasion of Crimea or the exposure of their athletic doping program. Universal Rights Group has called the law "a human rights protection instrument with real teeth," which explains why it's been adopted by so many other countries.
In 2016, Congress passed a new version of the law. Now called the Global Magnitsky Act, it extends the scope of the original act to punish offenders all over the world. So far, it has been used to level sanctions against corrupt officials in countries such as China, Egypt, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, and Ukraine. However, one American lawmaker tried to stop this from happening: Southern California Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher.
In July 2014, former staffer Paul Behrends, who had worked for Rohrabacher throughout the 1990s, went back to work for him. It was an unusual move, since Behrends had been making plenty of money as a lobbyist beforehand. But by this point, Rohrabacher had been softening his position on Russia, voting against the sanctions over Ukraine. Behrends had also become a critical contact for both Natalia Veselnitskaya and Rinat Akhmetshin, whom Putin had personally directed to overturn the Magnitsky Act.
Back to Europe
In April 2016, Rohrabacher and Behrends went back to Europe, meeting with Akhmetshin and documentarian Andrei Nekrasov, whose film Magnitsky Act: Behind the Scenes, smeared the late lawyer and the act which bore his name. After that, they traveled to Moscow to meet with Veselnitskaya and Viktor Grin, an assistant to Russian prosecutor Yuri Chaika. Grin had been sanctioned under the law for his role in covering up Magnitsky's death. He gave Rohrabacher a document marked "confidential" which made accusations against Magnitsky and Browder and alleged that the $230 million scandal they exposed was made up.
In addition, the document pressed for a subcommittee hearing that would re-examine the law, saying, “Changing attitudes to the Magnitsky story in the Congress… could have a very favorable response from the Russian side." If such a hearing were to take place, it would help to settle “key controversial issues and disagreements with the United States,” though what those were went unspecified.
Rohrabacher took this back to Congress, where he serves on the Foreign Affairs committee and as head of the Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats subcommittee. “The criminal justice department in Moscow had done a study…and had investigated it, and I was asked if I would look at it," he said. "I’m the chairman of the subcommittee that’s supposed to focus on Russia. It’s absolutely appropriate, and I think anybody that doesn’t spend that time focusing on their responsibility is derelict in their duty.”
At the same time, Akhmetshin had returned to the United States to lobby on behalf of the Kremlin. In May 2016, an anonymous staffer for a congressperson recalled finding the lobbyist his boss's office with recently deceased former California congressman Ron Dellums, asking to remove Magnitsky's name from the bill. In return, Russia would consider overturning the adoption ban they put in place as retaliation. Behrends apparently led Akhmetshin through the Capitol offices, even though it is considered extremely unusual for a staffer to offer a tour to a foreign lobbyist. Kyle Parker, an aide to Maryland Senator Ben Cardin and co-author of the original law, sent out a bulletin to fellow colleagues warning them about Akhmetshin's presence.
Why Was Akhmetshin in Washington?
There was another reason for Akhmetshin to be in Washington. In 2013, federal prosecutors, including Preet Bharara, filed a lawsuit against the Russian Prevezon company and its owner, Denis Katsyv, who had tried to purchase Manhattan apartments with some of the embezzled $230 million Magnitsky uncovered. Akhmetshin claimed he was lobbying on behalf of Prevezon. Technically, he was: he had been hired as a spokesperson for Katsyv's Delaware nonprofit, Human Rights Accountability Global Initiative, which had been set up to support Russian adoption - code for "repeal the Magnitsky Act." The lawyer for Prevezon? None other than Natalia Veselnitskaya. Clearly, if the Magnitsky Act could be crippled, then the lawsuit might be too.
Rohrabacher attempted to do the Kremlin's work while on the committee, claiming that the document brought new evidence to light casting doubts on Magnitsky's legacy. Not only did he want Magnitsky's name removed, he also wanted to stage a public hearing of Bill Browder (presumably not unlike the one Republicans recently subjected former FBI agent Peter Strzok to), invite Veselnitskaya and Nekrasov as witnesses, and screen the documentary for the House. Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) had reason to be skeptical as the meeting where Rohrabacher received the document had not been listed on his itinerary. Royce turned down all of Rohrabacher's requests, including the documentary screening.
However, that did not stop Rohrabacher. In spring 2016, his office sent out invitations for a screening of Nekrasov's documentary at the Washington D.C. Newseum, followed by a Q&A with Nekrsaov moderated by Seymour Hersh. Invitations made clear that the screening was not a lobbying effort on behalf of the Russians, but even that appears shady since the event was paid for by Potomac Square Group, a mysterious company that Akhmetshin said would be reimbursed for their efforts by the equally mysterious Delaware company he lobbied for.
The movie has been widely regarded as Kremlin propaganda, and Bill Browder has had screenings of it shut down throughout Europe. Hersh, who waived his fee to moderate the discussion, argued in favor of the film, calling it "very interesting" and adding, "It’s hard to walk out of that film without thinking that Browder should be getting more heat than he’s gotten so far." The screening may have pleased free-speech advocates, but did not quell the controversy. During the discussion, Nekrasov and Hersh were repeatedly heckled, and once they opened up to questions, they had to keep it brief as many of them were critical of Nekrasov and his film.
Ultimately, Rohrabacher's efforts failed as Congress still passed and enacted the Global Magnitsky Act at the end of 2016. But Rohrabacher's attempts at taking it down is further proof that he has abandoned his constituents in the United States in favor of constituents in Moscow, for whom he serves as a loyal lap dog.