Senate OKs Russia trade and rights bill, angering Moscow

The bill grants "permanent normal trade relations," to Russia by lifting a Cold War-era restriction on trade, but includes language that would punish human rights violators.

WASHINGTON - The Senate on Thursday approved legislation to punish Russian human rights violators as part of a broader bill to expand U.S. trade with Washington's former Cold War enemy.

Passage of the bill, by a 92-4 vote, drew an immediate angry response from Moscow, which had been warning that the human rights provisions would damage relations.

"The decision of the U.S. Senate ... is a performance in the theater of the absurd," Russia's foreign ministry said in a statement. A senior Russian lawmaker said Moscow could retaliate with a similar law.

The bill, which will be signed into law by President Barack Obama, grants "permanent normal trade relations," or PNTR, to Russia by lifting a Cold War-era restriction on trade.

The bill also grants PNTR to Moldova.

Business groups have been pushing Congress for months to approve the bill, which would ensure that U.S. companies get all the market-opening benefits of Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization. Russia joined the WTO on August 22.

Without it, the groups feared they would be left at a disadvantage compared to companies around the world that already have full WTO relations with Russia.

In addition, the United States cannot use the WTO dispute-settlement system to challenge any Russian actions that unfairly restrict U.S. imports until PNTR is signed into law.

"American businesses and workers will have better access to the growing Russian market on the same terms as their global competitors," the Obama administration's trade representative, Ron Kirk, said in a statement.

"The United States will have WTO procedures available to help ensure that Russia abides by its commitments," he said.

Many U.S. lawmakers refused to approve PNTR, which required lifting a 1974 human rights measure known as the Jackson-Vanik amendment, without new human rights legislation.

Jackson-Vanik tied the most favorable U.S. tariff rates to the rights of Jews in the former Soviet Union to emigrate freely. While it is broadly considered a success, it is a relic of the Cold War and at odds with WTO rules.

DEATH OF ANTI-CORRUPTION LAWYER

The bill approved on Thursday directs Obama to publish the names of Russians allegedly involved in the abuse and death of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian anti-corruption lawyer who died in a Russian jail in 2009.

It also would require the United States to deny visas and freeze the assets of any individual on the list, as well as other human rights violators in Russia on an ongoing basis.

Moscow has warned that the human rights provision would hurt relations and has promised to retaliate if it becomes law.

"The allegations that this legislation infringes on Russian sovereignty is nonsense ... It cannot force human rights abusers in Russia to stop what they're doing," Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said.

"But if they continue, what this legislation does is to tell those individuals that they cannot bank their money in the United States, they are not welcome in this country and they cannot visit this country and they will have no access to the U.S. financial system," McCain said.

Senator Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat who helped craft the Magnitsky provision, said he would continue pushing to make it universal in scope so it could be used to punish other human rights violators around the world.

The PNTR bill also contains measures that pressure the White House to make sure that Russia abides by WTO rules.

"If there are areas where Russia is not in compliance with its obligations, the administration is required to develop an action plan to address them," said Senator Orrin Hatch, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee.

Additional reporting by Rachelle Younglai in Washington and Thomas Grove in Moscow