The Obama administration on Tuesday accused Russian doctors, prison officials and others of complicity in the death of a lawyer whose case has come to symbolize human rights abuses in Russia, reversing course after earlier declining to apply new sanctions for fear of angering the Kremlin.
Ten Russians will have any U.S. assets seized and are banned from traveling to the United States for their role in the 2009 death of Sergei Magnitsky, its aftermath, or the corruption he was investigating when imprisoned, the State Department said.
Two others were cited for “gross human rights violations” unrelated to Magnitsky’s death in prison. Both were allegedly involved in the targeted killings of activists or journalists.
Russia has seethed over a 2012 law requiring the Obama administration to identify and sanction people found to have a hand in Magnitsky’s death or what the United States has described as a posthumous show trial. Magnitsky, 37, was allegedly beaten and mistreated in prison after exposing what he said was large-scale official corruption in 2008.
In response, the Russian government quickly passed its own human rights blacklist targeting Americans. It also banned U.S. adoptions of Russian children.
The Obama administration initially placed 18 Russians on the Magnitsky sanctions list, but angered the law’s congressional sponsors by declining to add to that list by a December 2013 deadline.
“Releasing a name on the Magnitsky list is a serious undertaking with legal ramifications, and as such, takes time,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said when asked about the timing of the new announcement.
The administration is seeking Russian diplomatic support on a host of international issues. Relations with Russia were sliding in December over the worsening political crisis in Ukraine, and officials have conceded quietly that further designations were put on hold to try to avoid further damage.
Six months later, the standoff with Moscow is much worse, and the administration saw no benefit in withholding the Magnitsky designations, said officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive deliberations.
Action under the Magnitsky law is separate from that taken against Russians and Ukrainians for their alleged roles in violence and corruption in Ukraine.
The Treasury Department said those affected Tuesday include three prison doctors who allegedly withheld medical care from Magnitsky, the director of the prison where he died and the judge who oversaw his posthumous trial.