Congress and President Make Permanent a Law to Protect International Religious Freedom

Magnitsky Act Renewal a Tool to Enhance Religious Freedom 

This month, a bill signed by President Joe Biden permanently reauthorized the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which makes human rights violators—both individuals and organizations—subject to sanctions by executive order. The law was signed after it passed both houses of Congress with broad bipartisan support. Religious freedom advocates believe the law will be used to support the rights of people around the world to freely practice their faiths.

Photo by Piti Tangchawalit/

The Magnitsky Act was originally enacted in 2012, named after Sergei Magnitsky, an accountant jailed and killed in 2009 in a Russian prison for exposing high-level financial crimes. The Act was used to penalize the individuals in Russia responsible for his death, with penalties including the freezing of their assets in the United States, prohibition against engaging in financial transactions with U.S. citizens, and denial of visas to the U.S. or revocation of existing ones.

In 2016, the Act became global, applying to violators of rights around the world and authorizing the U.S. president to impose penalties on those responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture and other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights standards. As a consequence, the Act now encompasses violations of religious freedom and religious rights. In 2016, for example, an evangelical Christian minister was arrested in Turkey and held without charges. After those responsible for his arrest were threatened with sanctions under Magnitsky, the minister was released. This 2016 law was set to expire within six years—by the end of 2022—but thanks to this month’s permanent reauthorization, that will no longer be the case.

“Global Magnitsky sanctions are the gold standard for holding human rights abusers accountable.”

In addition to the United States, a number of other countries have passed similar laws including Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom. More nations are considering them, creating the possibility of putting considerable international pressure on human rights violators. Rather than targeting entire countries—the manner in which sanctions have historically been enforced—Magnitsky penalties apply to the specific perpetrators, making the penalties more focused and effective.

Several groups which promote and assist religious freedom have expressed their support for the Act and its new permanent status.

Sergei Magnitsky
Sergei Magnitsky, whose death inspired the 2012 Magnitsky Act

Global Magnitsky sanctions are the gold standard for holding human rights abusers accountable. The Global Magnitsky Act is an important tool to impose consequences on violators of religious freedom that can now be used for years to come thanks to its permanent reauthorization,” said Nadine Maenza, head of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

A coalition of 12 groups which promote and assist religious freedom around the world had written to Congress urging that the Act be reauthorized, adding that it “should be used more frequently to sanction gross violators of religious freedom, as unfortunately, individuals and communities are coming under increasing assaults because of their faith from persecutors around the world.”

With the Magnitsky Act becoming permanent in the United States—and with other countries adopting similar human rights standards—there is an excellent opportunity to reverse that negative trend, affording greater religious freedom to people of faith across the globe.

Jeffrey Murphy
Paralegal, researcher & amateur historian.