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Global Magnitsky Act could be powerful weapon against impunity in journalist murders

The funeral of Sergei Magnitsky is held in Moscow on November 20, 2009. The lawyer died in state custody after exposing official corruption. (Reuters/Mikhail Voskresensky)

Last week, the proposed Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act emerged from the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee with approval. The bill was passed by the Senate last year. If passed by the full House of Representatives and signed into law by the president, it has the potential to offer partial redress to one of the most chilling truths facing journalists today: in 90 percent of cases, the murders of journalists go unpunished.

The Global Magnitsky Act would allow the U.S. government to freeze assets of and ban visas for (non-U.S.) individuals worldwide who grossly violate human rights. It would be an expansion of the 2012 Magnitsky Act, which applies exclusively to Russians. Both are named after Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in prison in 2009. Before his arrest in 2008 on charges of fraud, Magnitsky had exposed large-scale official corruption. More than three dozen people are now on the so-called "Magnitsky list," including two named in connection with the 2004 murder of Forbes editor Paul Klebnikov in Moscow.

The sanctions "may not be real justice for crimes like torture and murder, but they are far better than absolute impunity, which is what is happening in most places today," the act's main architect, William Browder, friend and colleague of Magnitsky, told CPJ in an interview in 2014.

For nearly 10 years, CPJ has campaigned vigorously for justice when journalists are murdered for their work and, although some important convictions have taken place, they are few and far between. We see only a handful of legal prosecutions in an average year, while unsolved murders have mounted to over 275 in the past decade. Obstacles to justice range from direct political interference to weak institutions, according to CPJ research. Many of those known to or suspected of murdering journalists are figures who hold power in their communities, by wealth, political office, or both.

When there is no cost to the perpetrators, the impact is devastating and widespread. In the words of Frank La Rue, the former U.N. special rapporteur for freedom of expression, impunity is "an invitation to kill not one more, but to kill many more." The turmoil for grieving families endures and colleagues must work under a cloud of fear, which constricts the free flow of information. And it isn't just in killings where we see impunity. Journalists who have been wrongfully imprisoned or violently assaulted may survive their ordeals, only to carry on knowing their persecutors remain at large. A global Magnitsky Act could offer precious recourse to these victims.

Gambia would be one good place to start. Violence and imprisonment for independent journalists and human rights defenders with complete impunity has become characteristic of the repressive administration of President Yahya Jammeh, CPJ research shows. In recent years, three cases pertaining to Gambian journalists were brought to the Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Court of Justice. Two proceedings argued that the Gambian state was responsible for the disappearance of reporter "Chief" Ebrima Manneh, who was taken into custody in 2006, and that it tortured newspaper editor Musa Saidykhan, jailed for three weeks in 2006. The third suit challenged the state's failure to investigate the 2004 murder of editor, columnist, and press freedom advocate Deyda Hydara.

The regional court found enough evidence to render decisions in favor of the plaintiffs and ordered remedies. But Gambia, despite its membership in ECOWAS, has flagrantly ignored the rulings, and state brutality against the media continues. Another journalist, Alagie Abdoulie Ceesay, was arbitrarily detained in July of last year, and held despite repeated bail requests and deteriorating health.

The ECOWAS court verdicts suggest there is likely enough evidence in those cases to satisfy the requirements of the global Magnitsky bill. "There is a wealth of documentation to both readily and persuasively make the case that Jammeh is deserving of sanction. To my mind, it's a clear-cut case that is ready made for this type of legislation," Jeffrey Smith, executive director of the Vanguard Africa Movement, which promotes good governance in Africa, and a consultant who has worked closely with Gambian activists, said in an interview following approval of the bill by the House committee on May 18.

Furthermore, though Jammeh pays little heed to some forms of international pressure--in addition to disregarding the ECOWAS judgments, he has also ignored calls by the U.N. to release protesters arrested at a peaceful rally in April and to give information on other political prisoners-- financial pressure could be more effective. A trust connected to Jammeh owns a multimillion dollar mansion in Potomac, Maryland; his family travels routinely to the U.S., The Atlantic magazine reported this year.

Magnitsky sanctions could be applied to help counter entrenched impunity in other countries, even those where CPJ has recorded some of the highest rates of unsolved murders of journalists. In Iraq, at least 110 journalists have been slain in connection to their work with complete impunity since 2003, when the U.S.-led invasion ushered in an ongoing era of conflict. One case CPJ has been closely monitoring is the 2013 murder of Kawa Garmyane in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Prior to his death, Garmyane, editor-in-chief of a local publication, published reports alleging corruption among Kurdish politicians and had received threatening messages from Mahmoud Sangawi, an army general and leader of a leading political party. Courts convicted two lower-level suspects, but Sangawi was exonerated by what local activists say is a heavily politicized judicial system. Garmyane's case is emblematic of the fact that those who are suspected of commissioning the killings of journalists are prosecuted far less frequently than those who pull the trigger. Bringing some measure of personal consequence to masterminds would raise the cost of killing journalists.

There is some distance to go before the global Magnitsky bill becomes law and cases can be submitted for consideration, let alone acted upon. In many instances, it will be difficult to provide the evidence the bill requires--in part due to the conditions that allow impunity to thrive in the first place. Though the act is intended to diminish political fallout through the targeting of individuals rather than countries, international diplomacy will no doubt come into play, as will domestic politics. The bill also cites security as cause to withdraw sanctions, a stipulation that could be an obstacle in cases such as Garmyane's, given that Kurdish fighters are allies in the U.S. fight against the militant group Islamist State.

If the legislation does prevail, the U.S. is poised to inspire other countries. A Magnitsky act is now on the political agenda in Canada. Members of the European Parliament have called for similar sanctions on Russians, and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee has launched a campaign for Norway to adopt a mechanism resembling the global Magnitsky bill. It is a far cry from six years ago when, as Browder recalled in his CPJ interview, U.S. State Department officials "practically laughed me out of their office."

Sanctions cannot replace justice; they cannot bring security and dignity to victims, colleagues and family members like a trial and appropriate sentencing. But they might deter attacks on journalists and other human rights violations. If passed and implemented vigorously, the Global Magnitsky Act will perhaps not break the cycle of impunity and violence, but it will put a very nice dent in it.

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