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Maine Native Targets Russian Human Rights Violators

Tom Porter

A U.S. foreign policy advisor - and one of the people credited with writing legislation to deal with mounting tensions with Russia - was in Portland today to share his latest insights. Kyle Parker is a native of Old Town, Maine, and a 1999 graduate of the University of Maine. He's also a a leading advocate on human rights. Parker spoke to students at the University of Southern Maine about his work, and the man who inspired him.

Hear more from Kyle Parker.

A conversation with Kyle Parker can be considered a rare treat for students. As Parker explains to a classroom full of political science undergrads at USM, he tends to keep a low profile in Washington, operating under the radar.

"I'm a foreign policy 'doer' not a foreign policy 'sayer,' " he says.

Parker is a senior staffer with the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs, and so, he says, much of his time is spent with his mouth shut.

"I spend most of my time in Washington listening - listening to all sides," he says. "We have a steady stream of traffic, folks from the region, briefings with the administration and hearing about our options, and then, ultimately, we make some decision."

One of the first big personal decisions Kyle Parker made was back in the 90's, when he was on quite a different academic track from where he ended up.

"I was a chemistry major up at the University of Maine in Orono," he says, "met some Russian students taking summer classes, and just was fascinated with Russia, and always had been as a kid watching the events in the 1980's, and always wanted to learn a foreign language but couldn't get motivated to learn Spanish, so I dove right into it."

He switched majors to international politics and spent two years studying as an exchange student in Russia, a country he estimates he's visited about 50 times. Parker most likely won't be going back there anytime soon, though. He says the Russian authorities have made it clear to him that he's "persona non grata."

His unwelcome status in Moscow is a testament to the key role Parker has played in devising legislation which was intended to prohibit human rights violators in Russia from seeking entrance to the United States. It took three years, and two Congresses, to pass the Magnitsky Act in 2012. It's named after Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian tax attorney, who, as part of the work he was doing for a U.S. law firm, uncovered massive corruption among government officials.

"He eventually realizes that vast amounts of money - nearly half a billion dollars - had been stolen from the Russian treasury, laundered through western banks, including U.S. banks and U.S. property," Parker says.

Magnitsky decides to blow the whistle, a decision which lands him in jail. He refuses to recant his accusations, says Parker, and is held in torturous conditions for nearly a year, until he dies of medical neglect in 2009.

Parker says Magnitsky's death had a profound effect on him, and increased his determination to take action. The Magnitsky Act contains a list of names of Russian officials - judges, police officers and tax officials - implicated in the corruption scandal unearthed by Sergei Magnitsky, and in his arrest and alleged mistreatment. By denying those officials access to U.S. banks and U.S. visas, Parker says the Magnitsky Act strikes at the Achilles heel of Russian corruption.

"And that weakness is that if you're a corrupt Russian official, the last place you want to keep your money is in Russia, where it's at risk from other corrupt Russian officials on the take," Parker says. "And so you need to have access to western financial institutions, as well - understanding the lack of rule of law in Russia - you also want to maintain an exit visa, in case you need to make a quick exit."

Parker says the Magnitsky Act also goes beyond the case of Sergei Magnitsky, and can be used as a global tool against corrupt officials or businessmen anywhere.