Saturday 25 January 2020

Karen Coleman: We might be a small country, but we can’t allow Russia to bully us over adoptions

Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin

Karen Coleman

THE Government should strongly resist Russian threats to scupper an adoption agreement between Ireland and Russia if we support sanctions against Russian officials connected with the death of a Moscow-based lawyer. The same goes for Russian warnings that trade links between Ireland and this increasingly mafia state could also be jeopardised.

The Russian authorities are trying to stop Ireland from using its current presidency of the Council of the European Union to push for the implementation of EU-wide sanctions against Russian officials suspected of being involved in the death of the whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky. The exploitation of orphaned Russian children as blackmailing bait shows how immoral the Putin regime is.

A capitulation to this kind of blackmail would amount to surrendering to a regime that pays little heed to democratic norms. Under Vladimir Putin, Russia has receded into a Stalinist-like dictatorship where human rights, freedom of expression, media plurality and political diversity have been severely eroded.

The background to this furore centres on a plucky Russian lawyer called Sergei Magnitsky. He ended up behind bars in 2008 after he uncovered what he claimed was systematic and large-scale corruption and fraud carried out by Russian officials and police officers. When Mr Magnitsky reported the theft he was arrested himself and accused of tax evasion.

Sergei Magnitsky died in a pre-trial detention centre in Moscow in November 2009. The 37-year-old father of two had been held, without trial, for 358 days. According to his family and friends he died from injuries and medical problems sustained after repeated abuse and torture while in detention.

Mr Magnitsky wrote regular complaints about his conditions in prison. They make for grim reading. He complained about being confined to a cell that "completely flooded with excrement from a malfunctioning sewage system". He wrote about being deprived of food, water and toilet access. He was beaten and denied critical medical attention when his health began to fail because of the horrendous conditions he was forced to endure.

Mr Magnitsky died as a result of acute pancreatitis, which he contracted in prison. He was denied proper medical attention.

Amnesty International said his last days "tell a story of agony and despair". Instead of giving him the urgent medical care he required, his captors placed him in a solitary cell "where he was handcuffed and beaten with rubber batons".

The Russian authorities have spuriously claimed that the lawyer died from a heart condition. Mr Magnitsky's family, friends and colleagues, along with respected human rights groups, refute those allegations.

One of Mr Magnitsky's most ardent supporters is a wealthy American called Bill Browder, for whom Sergei worked in Moscow. Mr Browder runs the London-based investment company Hermitage Capital. Mr Browder used to run one of the largest investment firms in Moscow, but he was deported from Russia after he exposed corrupt practices. Mr Browder insists the accusations against his company and Mr Magnitsky are false and that the lawyer was tortured to death in prison.

The Magnitsky case has gathered momentum internationally, with the late lawyer becoming a symbol of the struggle against the increasingly tyrannical Putin regime.

Last December, the US Congress backed the Magnitsky Act, which imposes travel sanctions and asset freezes on Russian officials suspected of being involved in Mr Magnitsky's death.

The Russians retaliated by introducing their own blacklist against US officials and they also banned Americans from adopting Russian orphans.

The European Parliament passed a resolution last October calling for a similar Magnitsky Act to be introduced in all EU states. That's where Ireland comes into the spotlight. Our current presidency of the EU Council gives us the power to put this on the agenda. But with only two months to go, we have little time left to exploit that opportunity.

The Russians are doing their best to intimidate us.

In March, the Russian Ambassador to Ireland, Maxim Peshkov wrote to Senator Pat Breen, the chairman of the Oireachtas Foreign Affairs and Trade Committee. The Committee had drawn up a draft motion calling on the Government to use its presidency "to impose EU-wide visa sanctions" against those allegedly involved in Mr Magnitsky's death.

In Mr Peshkov's letter, he warned the Committee against going ahead with the motion.

He sadi that it could have a "negative influence on the negotiations of the Adoption Agreement" between Russia and Ireland and that it would not "enrich bilateral Russian-Irish relations".

Ireland should not cave into this kind of pressure, especially when it is sanctioned by a repressive regime.

We may be a small country struggling economically but that does not mean we should forfeit our beliefs in human rights to appease a deeply sinister regime.

By doing that we turn a blind eye to their treatment of people like Sergei Magnitsky, whose determination to expose corruption cost him his life.

Irish Independent

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