US trade, rights bill angers Moscow

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REUTERS

US President Barack Obama walks to Blair House near the White House in Washington.

Washington - President Barack Obama on Friday signed a bill that brings U.S. trade relations with Russia into the 21st century but also ushers in a potentially testy era in which the United States could publicly “name and shame” Russian human rights violators.

The measure, which the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives passed by overwhelming margins, allows Obama to establish “permanent normal trade relations,” or PNTR, with Russia by lifting a Cold War-era restriction on trade.

It also directs Obama to bar Russian human rights violators from entering the United States and freeze any assets they have in U.S. banks. The provision is named in honor of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian anti-corruption lawyer many U.S. lawmakers believe was beaten to death in a Russian jail in 2009.

Russia President Vladimir Putin on Thursday called the congressional approval of the bill “a purely political and unfriendly act.”

“I don't get why they would sacrifice U.S.-Russia relations in order to get some political dividends at home,” Putin said.

U.S.-Russia relations have already been strained over the conflict in Syria and the treatment of critics of the Kremlin since Putin returned to the presidency in May.

The law directs Obama to publish the names of Russians deemed to be human rights violators, but allows him to keep some names classified if he decides that it is in the U.S. national security interest.

The first list is due to Congress in 120 days and Obama must explain in advance any names he decides to keep secret.

Russia considers the Magnitsky provision an insult. On Friday the lower chamber of its parliament gave preliminary approval to a law barring Americans who violate the rights of Russians from entering the country.

Business groups pushed Congress for months to approve PNTR, which was needed to ensure U.S. companies get all the market-opening benefits of Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization. Russia joined the WTO on Aug. 22.

Without it, U.S. firms such as Caterpillar, Ford , JPMorgan Chase and others feared they would be at a disadvantage to competitors in other countries that already have full WTO relations with Russia.

It was also needed to allow the United States to use the WTO dispute-settlement system to challenge any Russian actions it says unfairly restrict U.S. imports, although the two sides still need to formally establish full WTO relations in Geneva first. - Reuters


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