MOSCOW — Stung by the U.S. decision to refuse visas to about 60 officials connected to the jail cell death of a whistleblowing lawyer, Russia said Saturday that it is retaliating by banning an unspecified number of Americans.
The United States devised its targeted blacklist as a way of bringing pressure on the Russian government over the 2009 death of Sergei Magnitsky. Russia is now reciprocating against those it deems guilty of “humanitarian” crimes.
A Foreign Ministry spokesman lashed out Saturday in unusually strong terms at American criticism of the handling of the Magnitsky case. “Such moralizing calls appear especially cynical against the background of the practical legalization of torture in U.S. special prisons, kidnappings and mistreatment of terrorism suspects, the indefinite detention of prisoners in Guantanamo, uninvestigated murders of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Alexander Lukashevich said.
The Russian government has prepared a list of those involved in such cases, he said, as well as what he called the abductions of Russian citizens. That was an apparent reference to the prosecutions of two Russians in the United States: the alleged arms dealer Viktor Bout and a convicted cocaine smuggler, Konstantin Yaroshenko. Both were extradited to the United States from third countries, over strenuous Russian objections.
Neither side has identified any individual facing a visa ban. Given its broad sweep, it’s possible that the Russian list includes people who are not U.S. government officials.
The Russian announcement came a week after Michael H. Posner, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, concluded a six-day visit to Russia during which he met with opposition politicians and human rights activists in Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod and Kazan, asking how the United States could do more to support them. He said that the Obama administration’s reset in relations with Russia had been successful in many areas, with the exception of human rights, and that the United States intends to redouble its efforts in that realm.
Expulsions of diplomats are not that rare, usually over allegations of espionage, and inevitably result in counter-expulsions. Although the Magnitsky list is different in some important ways — its purpose is not to kick out diplomats but to bar entry to other sorts of officials who might wish to visit the United States — Russia seems to be responding in a traditional fashion.
“Unfortunately, whether someone might like this or not, there are some rules of the game, and they work faultlessly in diplomacy and international relations, and everyone uses these principles: These are ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ ” Sergei Lavrov, the foreign minister, said in a radio interview Friday.
Lukashevich said Saturday that if Washington continues to add names to its visa ban list, Russia will do the same. “This is not our choice,” he said. “We want an honest and mutually respectful dialogue and stronger interaction in all areas, including the visa field. It would be unacceptable if political games involving blacklists of Russians dash positive dynamism that has lately existed in Russian-U.S. relations.”
Lavrov’s comments the day before were only the most recent in a string of warnings that Moscow would take action against American sanctions in the Magnitsky matter. The American list is “an attempt to interfere in our internal affairs,” he said, and he called it an attempt to undermine the reset. But he vowed that that would not happen.
“This attempt will not be successful in terms of undermining the foundations of the Russian-U.S. relations,” he said.
Robert B. Hilton, spokesman for the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, said he would not comment because “we have not heard formally from the Russian government on this issue.”
The State Department compiled the “Magnitsky list” of banned officials this summer, in a move that was actually intended to head off a bill, introduced by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), that would make such a list legally binding and freeze the assets of those who are on it.
The American ban has stirred considerable anger here within the government as well as garnered plaudits from human rights defenders.
Activists consider the Magnitsky list extremely effective because it punishes individuals rather than launching a broad attack against the government. “It’s very important. I think it will make people think twice,” Lyubov Volkova, a member of the presidential monitoring commission that oversees conditions in Moscow’s pre-trial jails, said Friday.
It’s a powerful deterrent to further abuses, she said, because people don’t want to be put on the list. Zoya Svetova, another commission member, said, “They have children who want to study in the U.S., and they don’t want their names on the list.”
Svetova said a fellow activist received a call recently from an official who asked whether he knew anyone at the U.S. Embassy who could get his name erased from the list.
Lyudmila Alexeyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, noted in an interview with the Interfax news agency that Russian officials are much more likely to have bank accounts and a desire to visit the United States than vice versa.
Magnitsky, who died in November 2009, was arrested after he prepared to expose a $230 million tax fraud. He was charged with the fraud himself, but died after a year in jail without coming to trial. The monitoring commission that President Dmitry Medvedev asked to investigate Magnitsky’s death found that the government was at fault. So far no one has been held responsible.
The European parliament has recommended that member states adopt their own Magnitsky lists, but none has yet done so.