Our view: Talking about restoring American adoption of Russian children is code for excusing human rights abuses
When Donald Trump Jr. was first confronted about his campaign meeting with a well-connected Russian lawyer, he explained that the topic of conversation was adoption. When President Donald Trump acknowledged his own, previously undisclosed conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit in Germany this month, both the White House and the Kremlin said the topic of the talk was adoption. It sounds innocent, even humanitarian for the U.S. government to engage with the Putin regime about restarting American adoptions of Russian children, which have been blocked since 2013. It's not.
The story, in which Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin eventually played a prominent role, began in 2007 when officials in the Russian Interior Ministry raided the offices of a company called Hermitage in what amounted to a kind of corporate identity theft. They stole registration documents for three Hermitage companies, re-registered them in the name of a convicted criminal and then had them plead guilty to billions of rubles in false liability claims. The scheme allowed the conspirators to net $230 million in tax rebates by claiming the fraudulent judgments as write-offs of previous legitimate profits.
Hermitage tried to fight back, hiring a lawyer named Sergei Magnitsky, who filed criminal complaints and named names — including some close associates of Mr. Putin, one of whom was put in charge of investigating the case. By July of 2008, Magnitsky had uncovered the $230 million fraud and testified to the mechanics of the scheme. In response, Russian officials opened a criminal complaint against Hermitage.
Maginitsky persisted in his story, and in November, 2008, he was arrested. He was subjected to sleep deprivation, inhumane conditions, and neglect of his medical problems, but he would not retract his testimony or sign a false confession. Over the following year, he developed serious health problems, including pancreatitis, for which he was scheduled to undergo surgery in August 2009. A week before that, he was shipped to a maximum security detention facility where no medical care was available. He made repeated requests for such assistance, but they were denied.
In November, his condition deteriorated to the point that prison officials transferred him to another detention facility in Moscow for immediate hospitalization to treat acute pancreatitis, cholecystitis and gallstones. Instead, he was taken to an isolation cell, handcuffed to the bed and beaten. Doctors were not allowed in for more than an hour. By the time they got to him, Maginitsky was dead, lying on the floor in a pool of urine.
His official cause of death was listed as heart failure. The Moscow Public Oversight Commission, an independent monitor of human rights conditions in Russian prisons, concluded that Magnitsky had been tortured, and a council established by then-Russian President Dmitri Medvedev would later agree, but official accounts from government agencies declared otherwise. Despite his death, he was tried and convicted of tax fraud in 2013. All those involved in the initial Hermitage scheme and the imprisonment and torture of Magnitsky were exonerated, and some were given high government honors.
In 2010, Senator Cardin and Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts introduced legislation to freeze the assets of those involved in the Hermitage fraud and Magnitsky death and ban them from receiving U.S. visas. It took two years of back-and-forth with the State Department and members of Congress before a version of the Magnitsky act was appended to another sanctions bill and signed into law by President Barack Obama on Dec. 6, 2012. It took less than two weeks for President Putin to respond; the Russian Duma voted 400-4 to ban American adoptions of Russian children, effective Jan. 1, 2013.
The ostensible reason was the death of an adopted Russian child in Arizona in 2008, but it was really retaliation for sanctions that punish some of his close associates — currently, 44 of the wealthy, well connected few who make up his power center.
So when President Trump says he's talking to President Putin about adoption, don't be fooled. This isn't about the welfare of Russian children. It's about lifting sanctions on flagrant abusers of human rights.
Become a subscriber today to support editorial writing like this. Start getting full access to our signature journalism for just 99 cents for the first four weeks.