By Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Russians are coming to Washington; in fact, they are already here. But they aren't happy.
A Russian parliamentary delegation is in the U.S. capital to lobby American lawmakers against a bill sanctioning Russian officials implicated in human rights abuses -- a move Moscow considers offensive outside interference in its affairs.
After some meetings on Capitol Hill, the four-man Russian delegation on Wednesday did not have a lot of progress to report from their lobbying against the "Magnitsky bill," named after Sergei Magnitsky, an anti-corruption Russian lawyer who died in 2009 after a year in Russian jails.
But they had a warning.
"We really don't want that the U.S. Congress adopts this bill that has the potential to deteriorate U.S.-Russia relations for years or even for decades to come. It will become a real irritant in U.S.-Russia relations," delegation member Vitaly Malkin told reporters, speaking through a translator at the Russian embassy.
A Russian parliamentary investigation into the Magnitsky case is underway, the group said, displaying a dossier with what they said were the preliminary findings.
The Magnitsky bill pending in Congress would require the United States to deny visas and freeze the assets of Russians linked to Magnitsky's death, as well as those of other human rights abusers in Russia. The Senate version, sponsored by Democrat Ben Cardin, would extend the sanctions to human rights abusers anywhere in the world.
Magnitsky, a Russian who worked for the equity fund Hermitage Capital in Moscow, was jailed in 2008 on charges of tax evasion and fraud. His colleagues say these were fabricated by police investigators whom he had accused of stealing $230 million from the state. The Kremlin's own human rights council says Magnitsky was probably beaten to death.
LACK OF MEDICAL ASSISTANCE
But the dossier brought by the Russians says Magnitsky suffered from some undetected diseases that lead to his death. It also says that his arrest was legal and the result of his involvement in tax evasion schemes.
"We think the lack of adequate medical assistance accelerated his death," Malkin told reporters.
Malkin denounced what he called "baseless allegations" about the case by William Browder, CEO of Hermitage Capital, who has campaigned for passage of the bill. Recently Browder has shown a documentary film to U.S. lawmakers that alleged Magnitsky's death was tied to organized crime stretching into the Russian government.
But the Magnitsky bill had already gained traction in Congress before Browder's film was released. In recent weeks the legislation has passed House and Senate committees, and it has bipartisan support in both chambers.
Its future is still unclear, however, partly because the administration of President Barack Obama has been unenthusiastic about it.
FACING A NEW TEST
The bill faces another test next week when the Senate Finance Committee is expected to vote on whether to extend permanent normal trading relations to Russia. The panel's chairman, Senator Max Baucus, has pledged to attach the Magnitsky bill to the trade bill, making a floor vote probable.
The Russian delegation visiting Washington met some of the Magnitsky bill's Senate co-sponsors, Republican senators John McCain and Roger Wicker, and plans to see the House sponsor, Democratic Representative Jim McGovern, on Thursday. They saw a State Department official and were on their way Wednesday evening to the White House for a session with a National Security Council staffer.
But they said they have not been able to set up a meeting with the bill's main Senate sponsor, Democrat Ben Cardin. Asked about the delegation's lobbying in Washington, Cardin told reporters Tuesday: "I think that Russia should take care of their own business. They should take care of human rights violators and hold them accountable."
Other lawmakers pointed out that while the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin opposes the Magnitsky bill, Russian opposition activists have called for its passage. Even some Russian businessmen have spoken in favor of it, according to McGovern.
"I've talked to Russian business people who think this is a good idea. It's not just human rights activists, but a lot of people who would like to see the Russian government clean up its act and crack down on human rights abusers and those involved in corruption," McGovern said recently.
One Russia expert in Washington, Leon Aron, said he thought the bill had gained ground because of a perception on Capitol Hill that President Obama -- who touted the "reset" of relations with Russia under the term of Putin's predecessor Dmitry Medvedev -- has not been forceful enough with Russia.
"Congress felt that it really needed to react, to register a policy issue, but also kind of a moral outrage," said Aron, director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
But another Russia-watcher, Matthew Rojansky, noted that the Magnitsky bill had gained adherents in Congress in an election year when "there just is no political cost (in the United States) to attacking Vladimir Putin, bogeyman."
"It (the Magnitsky case) does play into some old Cold War stereotypes which can play well in election season," said Rojansky, deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"The opposite tends not to be true. There isn't a constituency for whom love for Russia plays well," Rojansky said.
(Reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)