What is the Magnitsky Act? How does it apply to Khashoggi’s case?

After the disappearance of prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, US Senators triggered the terms of the Global Magnitsky Act, which requires the president to investigate and determine if a foreign person is responsible for a extrajudicial killing, torture or other gross violation of internationally recognised human rights.

In a letter, signed by a bipartisan group of 22 Senators on Wednesday, Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, demanded President Donald Trump probe any violations committed against Khashoggi.

The writer disappeared on October 2 after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to obtain documents needed to get married. Turkish police believe Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate, according to a number of media outlets, citing unnamed Turkish sources. Saudi officials maintain Khashoggi left the consulate before disappearing. 

Khashoggi had spent the last year in the United States in self-imposed exile after fleeing Saudi Arabia amid a crackdown on intellectuals and activists critical of the kingdom.

Although President Donald Trump said the US is working with both the Turkish and Saudi authorities, pressure from members of Congress continue to mount for more to be done.

Here’s a look at the Magnitsky Act and how it applies to Khashoggi’s case:

What is the Magnitsky Act?

The Magnitsky Accountability Act was signed into law by then-President Barack Obama in December 2012, in response to human rights abuses against Russian lawyer and auditor Sergei Magnitsky. 

Russian authorities arrested Magnitsky in 2008 after working with investor William Browder, who had hired him to uncover massive tax fraud totalling $230m linked to people connected to the Kremlin. Magnitsky was beaten in custody and died in 2009, days before his supposed release.

At the time of its passage, the Magnitsky Act targeted 18 Russian individuals, barring them from US entry and US bank dealings.

In 2016, it was expanded to give the executive branch power to impose targeted sanctions or visa bans on individuals who have committed human rights violations anywhere in the world.

With the threat of significant sanctions looming, the law is also meant to deter human rights violators from partaking in future violations, according to Mai El-Sadany, the legal and judicial director at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington.

“The Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act is an unprecedented human rights tool … [it] enables the president of the United States to apply targeted sanctions against individuals involved in human rights violations,” El-Sadany told Al Jzeera.

How is it triggered and what does it require the White House do?

Upon receipt of a letter from a chairman and ranking member of one an appropriate House or Senate committees, the president has 120 days to determine if a foreign individual committed a human rights violation. A classified or unclassified report is then submitted to the committee explaining whether or not sanctions will be imposed, and if so, what sanctions. 

Violations would include “extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights violations against individuals who seek to obtain, exercise, defend, or promote human rights and freedoms, including freedom of expression”, according to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

How does it apply in Khashoggi’s case? What happens next?

On Wednesday, ranking members and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sent a letter to President Trump triggering the Magnitsky Act and an investigation into whether rights violations occured relating to Khashoggi’s disappearance.

Upon receipt of the letter, the White House has 120 days to report back to the committee with a decision and determine whether it will impose sanctions on the foreign individual(s) involved in the “gross violation of internationally recognized human rights against an individual exercising freedom of expression”.

Human rights violations would also include “torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, prolonged detention without charges and trial, causing the disappearance of persons by the abduction and clandestine detention of those persons, and other flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty, or the security of person,” the Committee wrote in its letter on Wednesday. 

“Therefore, we request that you make a determination on the imposition of sanctions pursuant to the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act with respect to any foreign person responsible for such a violation related to Mr. Khashoggi,” Senators said. “Our expectation is that in making your determination you will consider any relevant information, including with respect to the highest ranking officials in the Government of Saudi Arabia.”

The letter was sent by Senators Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Bob Corker (R-TN), ranking member and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), ranking member and chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs.

The letter was also signed by Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL), Ben Cardin (D-MD), John Barrasso (R-WY), Chris Murphy (D-CT), Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Cory Gardner (R-CO), Ed Markey (D-MA), Johnny Isakson (R-GA), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Todd Young (R-IN), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Rob Portman (R-OH), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Ron Johnson (R-WI), Chris Coons (D-Del), Jim Risch (R-Idaho), and Tom Udall (D-NM).

What will it mean for US-Saudi relations?

The enactment of the Magnitsky Act has been seen as a major blow for US-Saudi relations by many in Washington. 

Although Trump told reporters on Thursday that he saw no reason to block Saudi Arabian investments in the US, an impending investigation into Khashoggi’s disappearance could potentially lead to economic and political sanctions on individuals in the oil-rich Gulf state.

James Zogby, founder and president of the Arab American Institute in Washington, DC, said Khashoggi’s case has led to “a tremendous shift in public opinion”, toward Saudi Arabia, “not only among [Americans] but also in the Senate”.

Whether or not the president implements sanctions, he said, Khashoggi’s case would continue to haunt Saudi Arabia.

“Not putting sanctions on individuals will only poison the well [for] future arms sales and future exemptions to sanctions,” he said. “Clearly in the Senate, where Congress can act without the president, there will be repercussions.

“This is something that has been building. This has got to be a concern for [Saudi Arabia]; having a good relationship with President Trump does not translate to getting a free pass from the Senate.”

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