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US passes trade legislation, infuriating Russia

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Congress drew a furious response from the Kremlin on Thursday by passing legislation that targeted human rights abusers in the prison death of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.

Voting 92-4, the U.S. Senate approved establishing permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) with Russia, ending Cold War-era restrictions, but also requiring sanctions against anyone connected to Magnitsky's death.

Moscow immediately called the action “a theater of the absurd” and vowed to retaliate, turning what would have been a boost in trade relations between the two powers into another source of friction.

The legislation, which also grants the same trade status to Moldova, now goes to the White House for the signature of President Barack Obama, who praised bipartisan work on the bill and said he would sign it.

Independent Senator Joe Lieberman said the Magnitsky measure will “punish human rights violators in Russia today” and send a “very powerful message” to leaders in Moscow.

“With passage of the Magnitsky act, we are saying to people in Russia who are striving to secure their fundamental freedoms: we have not and we will not forget you,” Lieberman said.

“We will stand in solidarity with the millions in Russia who have a single goal, which is a democratic Russia that respects the rule of law and fundamental freedoms and that is free of corruption.”

The new legislation would compel the U.S. government to freeze the assets of anyone tied to Magnitsky's 2009 death and deny them entry to the United States.

The lawyer was arrested after alleging that Russian officials had systematically orchestrated a massive theft through fraudulent tax refunds from the state.

The Russian foreign ministry warned that the U.S. law “will have a very negative influence on the future of our bilateral education,” and said Moscow would be “forced to retaliate.”

Even before the Senate vote, Russian officials had made clear they would regard sanctions against Russian officials as a “hostile and unilateral measure.”

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev last week described the move as a “mistake.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov sought “clarification” from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during a meeting Thursday in Dublin, according to a U.S. official.

The repeal of the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment was meant to reflect the changes in the world with Russia's ascension to the World Trade Organization.

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