WASHINGTON The U.S. House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly on Friday to "name and shame" Russian human rights violators as part of a broader bill to drop Cold War-era trade restrictions, brushing off warnings from Moscow that the move would damage relations.
The House voted 365-43 to approve the legislation, which takes a jab at the policies of Russian President Vladimir Putin while ensuring U.S. companies get the full benefits of Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization on August 22.
"Since Vladimir Putin was re-elected president in May 2012, his government has taken a harsh and confrontational approach to ongoing protests, cracking down on the Russian people's growing discontent with corruption and creeping authoritarianism," said Representative Jim McGovern, a Democrat.
The bill, which still needs Senate approval, would establish "permanent normal trade relations," or PNTR, with Russia.
In a provision that infuriates Moscow, the bill would direct President Barack Obama to publish the names of Russians believed 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.
Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was in Washington to witness the vote, which came on the third anniversary of Magnitsky's death.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican, said in statement that Nemtsov told her that Putin had made stopping the legislation his utmost priority because it threatened to ensnare those closest to the Russian leader.
Without PNTR, Russia could deny U.S. exporters some of the market-opening benefits others will enjoy due to Russia's WTO entry. The United States also could not use the WTO dispute-settlement system to challenge Russian actions without PNTR.
U.S. business groups believe PNTR could help them double or triple exports to the world's ninth-largest economy.
"With our high unemployment, we cannot afford to pass up any opportunity to increase our exports and create jobs," said House Ways and Committee Chairman Dave Camp, a Republican.
U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk called the vote an important step toward making sure U.S. companies receive all the benefits of Russia's WTO membership and are not left at a competitive disadvantage to other suppliers.
"We look forward to action from the Senate that will send a bill to the president," Kirk said.
Obama is expected to sign the bill if it reaches his desk, even though the White House initially pressed for PNTR legislation without the human rights sanctions provisions.
The Russian Foreign Ministry called House approval of the legislation "an aggressively unfriendly, provocative insult" and said "measures in response will certainly follow."
It urged Obama not to sign the bill, saying: "We hope the American executive authorities understand the pernicious consequences to which the legislative actions of ill-wishers and opponents of our bilateral interaction may lead."
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said earlier on Friday that Russia has already prepared its next steps but gave no details. Other Russian officials have indicated that Moscow would retaliate by imposing sanctions on U.S. officials it accused of violating Russian citizens' rights.
They would be likely to include officials involved in refusing a Russian request for the extradition of a convicted arms trader, Viktor Bout, serving a 25-year prison term in the United States.
Some Senate supporters of the bill are pressing for a broader version that would allow the United States to impose sanctions on human rights violators anywhere. Senate approval is expected, but no date is set yet for action.
"I will continue to work in the Senate to get PNTR across the finish line and onto the president's desk by the end of the year," said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a Democrat.
Both the House bill and a similar one pending in the Senate would allow the White House to keep secret the names of some individuals on the Magnitsky list if the president determined that was in the national security interest of the United States.
Magnitsky was jailed in 2008 on suspicion of tax evasion and fraud, charges colleagues say were fabricated by Russian police investigators he had accused of stealing $230 million from the state through fraudulent tax refunds. The Kremlin's own human rights council has said he was probably beaten to death.
U.S. farm and business groups welcomed the House vote, but would have preferred a bill focused solely on trade.
They have been in a vulnerable position in the Russian market since Russia's entry into the WTO in August because of a U.S. Cold War-era provision called the Jackson-Vanik amendment that is contrary to global trade rules.
The nearly 40-year-old measure tied the most favourable U.S. tariff rates to emigration rights for Jews in the former Soviet Union. WTO rules require normal trade relations on an unconditional basis.
The House bill would lift the Jackson-Vanik amendment for both Russia and Moldova, another former Soviet republic that has been in the WTO for years.