On Thursday, the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control issued its long-awaited annual designations under the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012, otherwise known as the Magnitsky Act, a federal law that places travel and financial sanctions on those responsible for “gross human rights abuses” in Russia. The decision had been delayed by at least six months; the Magnitsky designations are normally issued in December. But the scope of the latest rollout has eclipsed any criticism of its timing.
The designations target five Russian citizens, all of them linked to human rights violations under the terms of the Magnitsky Act — but one name stands out above others. Maj. Ruslan Geremeyev, an officer in the Russian Interior Ministry, a former deputy commander of the North Battalion, and a close confidant of Moscow’s viceroy in Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, has been sanctioned for his alleged role in organizing modern Russia’s most high-profile political assassination: the February 2015 killing of former deputy prime minister and opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, just a few hundred feet from the walls of the Kremlin. “We are focused on holding accountable those responsible for atrocious acts within Russia, including the extrajudicial killing of Boris Nemtsov,” Treasury Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Sigal Mandelker said as she announced the decision.
The significance of Geremeyev’s designation is difficult to overstate. Not only is this the first instance of U.S. sanctions issued specifically over the assassination of Nemtsov. The Treasury’s designation makes official what the media and human rights groups have long taken as a given: that Russian government structures were intricately involved in the killing of President Vladimir Putin’s leading political opponent. If a key enforcer of the Kremlin-backed regional leader was a low-level organizer in the murder, then who was the ultimate mastermind?
Even with the law’s tough legal requirements, it is not surprising that the U.S. government has met the standard of evidence needed to make the designation. Geremeyev had provided apartments and a car for the now-convicted perpetrators of Nemtsov’s assassination; he was seen with them on closed-circuit TV cameras the day before and two days after the murder; and, according to witness testimony, he behaved as their superior.
So compelling was the evidence that, on two separate occasions, Russian investigators attempted to issue an indictment against Geremeyev — and both times were prevented from doing so by Gen. Alexander Bastrykin, Putin’s longtime friend and chairman of the Russian Investigative Committee. In the end, investigators could not even question Geremeyev as a witness — as stated in the official report, because “nobody opened the door.” (For context: Kirill Serebrennikov, a dissident theater director accused of financial irregularities, was escorted to court in handcuffs by five heavily armed security guards.)
The Kremlin’s cover-up of the Nemtsov murder was not limited to shielding Geremeyev. The Russian authorities have withheld key evidence, including the footage from security cameras on the night of the murder; refused to question key persons of interest, including Kadyrov, his right-hand man Adam Delimkhanov, and Russian National Guard commander Gen. Viktor Zolotov; refused to classify the murder of the opposition leader as a political crime; and failed to indict a single organizer or mastermind. Furthermore, they have refused cooperation with the Council of Europe’s rapporteur on the Nemtsov case, banning him from entering Russia, ignoring his requests, and — in an act of cynicism exceptional even by Kremlin standards — returning his letter posted to the Russian parliament with a stamp reading “unknown address.”
So democracies have resorted to the only tool available in the face of the Kremlin’s flagrant violation of international commitments. In April 2018, the Lithuanian government sanctioned people “directly involved in organizing political assassinations” in Russia, reportedly including Geremeyev and others involved in the murder of Nemtsov. American lawmakers, notably Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), have called on the Trump administration to do the same. In March, the House of Representatives voted 416 to 1 to pass House Resolution 156, which urges the Treasury and State departments “to designate individuals whom they determine to have been involved in the assassination of Boris Nemtsov . . . on the list of specially designated nationals and blocked persons maintained by the Office of Foreign Assets Control of the Department of the Treasury, freezing their assets and making them ineligible to receive United States visas.”
On Thursday, they did just that. By designating Geremeyev in this manner, the United States has used the Magnitsky Act exactly as it was intended: to provide accountability for high-ranking abusers who enjoy impunity and protection from their governments. To be sure, this is a pale substitute for justice. Visa bans and asset freezes are hardly an adequate penalty for murder or other gross human rights abuses. But it does offer at least a measure of accountability — until the day when those who ordered, organized and carried out the assassination of Boris Nemtsov face real justice in Russia. Sooner or later, that day will come.