The US Senate last night voted to name and shame Russian officials involved in corruption and to forbid them from travelling to America or investing there.
The overwhelming vote in favour of the new law prompted a furious response from Moscow – as well as demands from two former British Foreign Secretaries, Sir Malcolm Rifkind and David Miliband, for a similar ban to be introduced by the UK.
The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs hit back, describing the “biased approach” as “nothing but a vindictive desire to counter Russia in world affairs”.
The Ministry published a series of furious remarks on its official Twitter feed: “It is perplexing and preposterous to hear human rights complaints from the US, where torture and kidnapping are legal in the 21st century. Apparently, Washington has forgotten what year this is and still thinks the Cold War is going on.
“The US decision to impose visa and financial sanctions on certain Russian citizens is like something out of the theatre of the absurd. Obviously, US passage of the ‘ Magnitsky Law’ will adversely affect the prospects of bilateral cooperation.”
The American bill, which was passed by 92 to 4 votes in favour, is dubbed the “Magnitsky Law” – named after Sergei Magnitksy, a Moscow lawyer who died in Russian custody in 2009 after alleging that a circle of interior and tax ministry officials had conspired in a $230 million tax fraud scam.
Earlier this year, British MPs overwhelmingly passed a motion calling on the Government to bring in a British equivalent of the US legislation. But it has been fiercely resisted by Foreign Office officials, who fear that a public banned list would upset relations with Moscow.
But with President Obama now likely to sign the new law into effect today, British politicians are putting renewed pressure on Downing Street to act against corrupt officials who enjoy their ill-gotten wealth in London with few consequences.
In an interview with The Independent, Sir Malcolm Rifkind said Russian officials who are known to be corrupt should be banned. “The argument is that these individuals are criminals or are linked to criminal organisations and they have quite expensive lifestyles which they can’t fully enjoy in Russia,” he said. “Half the satisfaction they achieve is by being able to travel to a number of western countries. It’s affecting them where it hurts.”
He continued: “It’s not an action against the Russian government, because in theory they ought to be equally adamant to get hold of the people responsible for defrauding the Russian taxpayer and Russian government of billions of roubles.”
Mr Miliband, meanwhile, said Britain should at least explore the feasibility of a banned list now that Washington has passed its own law. “The Magnitsky case was a human tragedy but also raised profound questions for the Russian state,” he said.
“The Bill going through the US Congress about human rights abuses around the world - not just in Russia - should rouse the British government to look at what can be done here to follow suit.”
During the debate on Capitol Hill, Senators John McCain and Ben Cardin, a senior Republican Democrat duo who have pioneered so-called Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, explained why a banned list was needed.
The act itself would normalise America’s trade relations with Russia, but allow certain officials to be blocked if they were involved in corruption or human rights abuses. Senators Cardin and McCain ideally want the law to apply to all countries but the House of Representatives have only voted in favour of it affecting Russia.
“There are still many people who look at the Magnitsky Act as anti-Russia,” said McCain. “I disagree. I believe it is pro-Russia. I believe it is pro-Russia because this legislation is about the rule of law and human rights and accountability, which are values that Russians hold dear.”
Moscow, however, has responded furiously to the bill and has threatened to bring in its own banned list of US officials involved in human rights abuses such as Guantanamo Bay.
But Dominic Raab, the Tory MP, who has led calls for a British version of the Magnitsky Act, says the UK can no longer afford to be afraid of Russian reprisals. “It shouldn’t be viewed as a controversial request,” he said. “What we are asking for is a piece of legislation that stands up for human rights in Russia and says you can’t have blood on your hands and then come to Britain to buy up properties and shop for Christmas on the Kings Road.”