Sen. Ben Cardin is scheduled to meet Thursday with the family of a Russian lawyer whose death sparked an international outcry over human rights in that country, renewing focus on a controversy that has complicated U.S.-Russian relations at a sensitive time.
The meeting with the widow, mother and son of Sergei Magnitsky — who died in a Russian jail in 2009 after exposing corruption in the Russian government — comes just days after the State Department released a list of Russian officials barred from obtaining U.S. visas over alleged human rights abuses.
The list was required by a law championed by Cardin, a Maryland Democrat. He named the legislation for Magnitsky.
The Obama administration is trying to move beyond the controversy that erupted when Congress passed the law last year. While relations with Moscow remain strained — aggravated by differences over the civil war in Syria — the White House is seeking cooperation on Iran and the escalating tensions on the Korean peninsula.
Cardin, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he is not concerned that his meeting with the Magnitsky family or the naming of Russian officials prohibited from traveling in the United States might disrupt those broader international efforts.
"We can deal with more than one subject at a time," he said in an interview.
The meeting, he said, "gives us a chance to underscore the importance of these new standards, of not abating on gross violators of internationally recognized human rights standards."
Russian officials seem to be making a distinction between the White House and the Congress. The officials responded positively to a meeting with U.S. National Security Adviser Tom Donilon this week and a letter from President Barack Obama to Russian President Vladimir V. Putin. The two leaders are expected to meet later this year.
But those officials criticized what they described as a "Russiaphobic" Congress, a reference to the Magnitsky language. Lawmakers voted overwhelmingly in December to pass the measure after it was attached to a broader trade bill that was a priority for both countries.
The Putin administration has said the Magnitsky provision represents meddling in Russian affairs.
The measure required the State Department to publicly release a list of Russian human rights abusers, deny them visas and prohibit them from accessing U.S. banks.
The department released a list of 18 officials, most of whom were involved in the Magnitsky case, on Saturday. The Kremlin responded with a list that included several top U.S. officials involved with running the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Last year, Russia passed a law banning U.S. adoptions of Russian children. It is named after a young Russian orphan who died in Virginia in 2008 after being left in a car by his adoptive father but is viewed as a retaliation for the Magnitsky Act.
Simon Saradzhyan, a research fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University, said the meeting between Cardin and the Magnitsky family is unlikely to do further harm to Washington's relationship with Moscow.
Feelings in Russia about the Magnitsky Act are still raw, he said, but it is not a defining dispute in the relationship.
"This issue will remain but it will not be a game-changer, primarily because of the fact that there are vital interests that require cooperation regardless of whether the two governments see eye to eye on values and such issues as rule of law," Saradzhyan said.
He noted that bilateral relations are generally steered by heads of state, not by lawmakers, and that the Putin and Obama administrations understand that they have mutual interest on issues such as counter-terrorism and stability in Central Asia.
Magnitsky was arrested and jailed after exposing government corruption. He died in his cell, possibly after being beaten and tortured. He was 37.
Cardin, who has worked to promote human rights as co-chairman of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe — the so-called Helsinki Commission — has likened the case to the persecution of Russian Jews during the Cold War.
He said the Magnitsky family reached out to him to set up the meeting to express their appreciation. Cardin pressed for and ultimately won approval for the law even through the Obama administration was cool to including it as part of the trade bill.
The meeting, which will take place at the Capitol, has garnered little attention in the Russian press, Saradzhyan and other Russia analysts said. A spokesman for the Russian Embassy did not return a request for comment Wednesday.
A White House spokesman also did not comment on the meeting.
White House press secretary Jay Carney, addressing the list of names this week, said the "clear, right response" to Magnitsky's death is to "investigate and to take action on those individuals responsible."
While "we have considerable differences on some issues," he said, "we also have areas where we have and can make real progress where our interests align."
Cardin's initial Magnitsky legislation would have required the State Department to maintain a list of human rights abusers in all countries. But the version of the legislation approved by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives limited the law to Russia. Cardin and other Senate Democrats accepted that change.
Cardin said he hope the rules will be applied to other countries.
"It's broader than just Sergei Magnitsky," he said. "There is a desire to make this a global standard."
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