In November 2009, the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky was beaten to death by guards after 358 days in "preventive custody" in Moscow. His offence had been to uncover a massive tax fraud scheme stretching high into the Russian government. The case became a cause célèbre, Exhibit A of the lawlessness and corruption that plagues the country's business life.
Now, almost three years later, in a rare display of bipartisanship, the US Congress is moving to pass the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, denying visas to Russians implicated in human rights abuses and freezing their financial assets. Congress is absolutely right to pursue such legislation. But it is essential it does so in the right way. What would be wrong would be – as some on Capitol Hill demand – to link the passage of the Magnitsky Bill directly to the repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment.
The latter is an obsolete vestige of the Cold War, dating from 1974 and imposing trade restrictions designed to force Moscow to accelerate the emigration of Soviet Jews. That problem no longer exists, and since 1990 Jackson-Vanik has been waived annually. It is time for it to go for good. Russia is about to join the World Trade Organisation. Not only will membership bind it further into a global system of rules and laws. If the US persists with Jackson-Vanik, it will itself be in violation of WTO rules. But to insist that Jackson-Vanik be replaced by the Magnitsky bill is the wrong course, playing into President Putin's argument that Washington and the West are viscerally and irredeemably anti-Russian.
The Magnitsky Bill stands on its own merits. Yes, objections can be made. It is, by any standard, interference in the internal affairs of another country. Understandably, the Obama administration, anxious not to jeopardise Russian co-operation over international problems from Iran to Syria, is extremely wary of it. And who will decide which individuals are targeted – the State Department, or Congress? The measure could even prove counter-productive, further poisoning business practices in Russia as feuding factions and oligarchs seek to have each other placed on Washington's blacklist.
The advantages, however, far outweigh the disadvantages. In the best Soviet fashion, the Russians promise to retaliate in kind. But Mr Putin himself has expressed alarm, a sign of his desire to avoid anything that might destabilise the rotten system, almost wholly dependent on energy and raw material revenues, over which he presides. The Russian opposition welcomes the Bill, as does almost every Russian who believes in the rule of law. Above all, it is the least that we owe Sergei Magnitsky.