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

Senators trigger act requiring Trump to determine if foreign person violated the human rights of slain Saudi writer.

The United States has started taking action against individuals linked to the killing of US-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

On Tuesday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said while investigations continue into The Washington Post columnist’s killing, the administration has identified some individuals linked to Khashoggi’s death and have revoked their visas and entered visa lookouts.

While not specifying who the individuals were, Pompeo said the list included officials from the Saudi intelligence services, the royal court, foreign ministry, and other Saudi ministries.

The State Department is also working with the Treasury Department to review the applicability of the Global Magnitsky sanctions to those individuals, he said.

US Senators triggered the terms of the Global Magnitsky Act earlier this month, which requires the president to investigate and determine if a foreign person is responsible for Khashoggi’s death within 120 days.

“These penalties will not be the last word on this matter from the United States. We will continue to explore additional measures to hold those responsible accountable,” Pompeo said.

“We’re making very clear that the United States does not tolerate this kind of ruthless action to silence Mr Khashoggi, a journalist, through violence. We continue to maintain a strong partnership with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Neither the president nor I am happy with this situation.”

The writer disappeared on October 2 after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to obtain documents needed to get married. On Saturday, the Saudi Arabian government confirmed Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate in what they said was a “fistfight” that escalated and led to his death.


Turkish and US officials continue to question the latest Saudi version of how Khashoggi was killed, probing for further answers. 

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 he worked 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.

Holding a threat of significant sanctions, 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 Jazeera.

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 an appropriate House or Senate committee, 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 … 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 was it applied in Khashoggi’s case? What happens next? 

According to State Secretary Pompeo, the State Department is consulting with congress to hold those responsible for Khashoggi’s death to account. 

Jordan Tama, a professor at the American University and scholar on US foreign policy and congress, said the administration might choose to impose some sanctions to try to pre-empt congress from taking stronger action against Saudi Arabia.

After Pompeo announced US travel restrictions on some individuals involved in Khashoggi’s killing, Tama said financial sanctions, in the form of freezing accounts and assets, are expected to come next.

“Congress members would not be satisfied with just visa bans if the United States believes certain Saudi officials are responsible for this murder,” he said. “They would want financial consequences, which are seen as more significant sanction. They will want to know who is sanctioned and how high up [they are].”

Congress may also look to pass a law to restrict arms sales to Saudi Arabia or put a hold on current weapons deals, Tama said. 

This comes two weeks after a letter, signed by a bipartisan group of 22 senators on October 10, demanded President Donald Trump to investigate any violations committed against Khashoggi and invoking the Global Magnitsky Act.

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”.

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 Arabia’s 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”, towards 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.”

Source: Al Jazeera