Kyle Parker
Kyle Parker
Last July, President Donald Trump generated widespread outrage for his apparent willingness to accept Russian President Vladimir Putin’s offer to allow special counsel Robert Mueller to question Russian spies charged with hacking during the 2016 election in exchange for the U.S. allowing the Kremlin to interrogate American citizens for unspecified crimes. At the time, Trump called it an “incredible offer” before eventually walking it back after his own State Department called it “absolutely absurd” and the Republican-controlled Senate voted unanimously to express their disapproval of the proposal. That was a relief for Maine native Kyle Parker, the chief of staff of the Commission for Security and Cooperation in Europe, known as the Helsinki Commission, who was on Putin’s to-be-interrogated list along with former U.S. ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul.

Parker earned Putin’s wrath for his role in drafting the Magnitsky Act, which was passed by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Obama in 2012. It authorizes the U.S. Treasury Department to target Russian human rights offenders, freeze their assets, and ban them from entering the U.S.

But although Trump didn’t ultimately hand Parker over to Putin, Parker says he still has to be careful about where he goes in the world.

“I feel pretty safe going to London. Going to Turkey? Going to go Minsk? Belarus? That’s another story,” Parker said at a meeting of the Midcoast Forum on Foreign Relations at Point Lookout in Northport on December 13. He said that even going to Germany can be risky because of the way Russia abuses international organizations like Interpol. “I’ve seen it happen [to Americans] in Germany … where they’ve been arrested, no reason given [and] spent two, three months in jail, not even told that they’re being haunted by an Interpol red notice, only to be eventually told, ‘Okay, you can go’ …. You’re not likely to be extradited, but certainly it can raise havoc and add stress to your freedom of movement.”

A native of Old Town, Parker, 43, said he first became interested in Russia after meeting some Russian girls while attending the University of Maine in the 1990s. “That awakened in me an interest I didn’t know I had in Russian culture and language and, and pretty much all things Russian,” he said. He was also inspired by the late Samantha Smith, a young activist from Manchester, Maine, who was invited to the Soviet Union in 1982 after she wrote a letter to the newly appointed CPSU General Secretary Yuri Andropov asking for peace between the two countries.

Eventually, after spending two years as an exchange student in Eastern Europe, Parker would go on to do an internship in Sen. Olympia Snowe’s office before serving as a senior advisor to Sen. Eliot Engel (D-NY) on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. In 2006, Parker began working for the Helsinki Commission, an independent U.S. government agency focusing on arms control, human rights and democracy. Parker describes the commission as “one of the few forums where the United States and Russia participate as equals,” since Russia is no longer in the G8 and Trump pulled the US out of the UN Human Rights Council in June.

It was while serving as policy advisor for Eurasia at the U.S. Helsinki Commission that Parker says he got the idea for what would become the Magnitsky Act in response to the imprisonment in 2008 of Russian tax attorney Sergei Magnitsky, who had uncovered a massive $230 million fraud involving Russian tax officials. Accused of committing the crime himself, the 36-year-old Magnitsky spent nearly a year in prison, where he developed gall stones, pancreatitis and a blocked gall bladder and received inadequate medical attention. Then on November 16, 2009, eight days before he was scheduled to go to trial, he was beaten to death while in custody.

“He’s chained to a bed. He’s beaten by eight riot guards until he dies. And he’s found in a puddle of his own blood and urine in this jail cell,” said Parker. “And I say that not to shock, but just to really make it concrete and bring it home, that when we talk about human rights abuses, we’re talking about a cold and ugly reality.”

A month later, President Barack Obama signed the Magnitsky Act into law, which aimed to punish the specific Russian human rights abusers, including the people allegedly responsible for Magnitsky’s death. In 2016, Congress expanded the Magnitsky Act globally, allowing the US to sanction human rights abusers anywhere in the world. Currently, there are over 50 names on that list, which includes not only Russians, but also Burmese officials who committed atrocities against Rohingya tribes in Myanmar, Saudis involved in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as well as corrupt officials and human rights abusers from Dominican Republic, Uzbekistan and Ukraine. But unlike traditional sanctions, the Magnitsky Act is not structured to collectively punish a country for the crimes of a few, as an oil or wheat embargo does, explained Parker.

“It looks very much at personal responsibility,” he said. “It’s also something that I would argue is very cost effective — public diplomacy and protection of our own national security. We’re in an era where foreign affairs and foreign assistance budgets are shrinking — we’re in this America-first milieu. And this is something that really doesn’t cost us anything.”

Parker noted that the U.S. isn’t funding foreign human rights NGOs as it used to — groups that Putin famously referred to as “jackals” that “scavenge at foreign embassies, counting on the support of foreign foundations and governments rather than the support of their own people.” Instead, Parker said, the Office of Foreign Assets Control uses available information and classified intelligence to decide who should be sanctioned, but politicians and various groups can also petition to have individuals added to the list. For instance, in August, Sen. Marco Rubio and 16 other members of Congress urged the U.S. to impose sanctions against Chinese officials responsible for human rights abuses against Uyghur Muslims. The Global Magnitsky Act actually has an email address where anyone can send information about corrupt officials and human rights abusers.

Parker said the program is effective in spite of the anti-Americanism in Russia because it specifically targets people who have stolen money from the Russian people and have abused human rights.

“And these are, after all, national security measures, they protect us too,” he added. “They keep our banking sector a little cleaner. They help us to shed some of that bad business. And they keep these individuals out of our country so that I don’t have to brush shoulders with them. Now that I’m wanted by the Russian authorities, I appreciate the fact that at least some of these people can’t come and question me in my own hometown.”

Perhaps attesting to the effectiveness of the law, the Russian government was so furious that it reacted to its passage by denying Americans the ability to adopt Russian children, issuing a list of U.S. officials prohibited from entering Russia and posthumously convicting Magnitsky as guilty. Parker said that part of the reason the law elicits such a reaction from the Kremlin and other authoritarian governments is because rooting out corruption is usually so central to the politics of authoritarian leaders. The “public naming and shaming” exposes corrupt officials and human rights abuses in lights, but it also allows them to respond with lawsuits or in the court of public opinion, he said.

“It sows dissent in the criminal ranks when we shine a group’s name in lights,” he added.

“And when we highlight a criminal network or corrupt network operating somewhere in the world, their opponents or their competitors say, ‘Hey, these guys are now exposed.’ …. It’s not our immediate goal to foster dissension in the criminal ranks, but it’s not a bad thing either, to make it harder for them to work.”

Back in 2014, Parker even escorted the members of the Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot, who had been imprisoned for protesting the Putin regime, to the White House Correspondents Dinner. Later when the Pussy Riot members testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he recalled Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) asking if the act’s sanctions were effective. Member Nadya Tolokonnikova “without skipping a beat, looked at him and said, ‘They’re effective at keeping the conversation alive.’”

Parker acknowledged that Russia and other countries can point to US human rights abuses as well, such as imprisoning people indefinitely in Guantanamo Bay, separating immigrant families from their children and holding asylum seekers in detention. To this, he argued that the U.S. is being held to account to a certain extent in the court of global public opinion and expressed optimism that the nation’s press and the judicial system would help hold the government to account. He noted that the Russians have discussed making their own list of American human rights abusers.

“We have Americans and politicians who called for some of those individuals to actually be sanctioned criminally by our own government,” he said. “Now, that didn’t happen. But you’re welcome to make that argument and the further you make that argument, the farther out on the branch you get in vindicating the premise that human rights are to be respected.”