The Obama administration on Friday named 18 Russians to a U.S. sanctions list for alleged human rights abuses, setting up a likely feud with Moscow over what Russian officials have decried as interference with the country’s internal affairs.
The 18 names were the first to be promulgated under the so-called Magnitsky Act, which Congress passed last year to punish Russian officials linked to suspected violations of human rights. All but two of those on the list have been connected by U.S. officials to the 2009 death of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who died in prison after blowing the whistle on a massive tax-fraud scheme.
Sixteen of those on the list are current or former officials involved in Magnitsky case, including judges and police and revenue officers. The two others are Chechens suspected of crimes. One of them, Kazbek Dukuzov, has been accused of murdering American journalist Paul Klebnikov in Moscow in 2004.
The administration faced a congressionally mandated deadline of Saturday for identifying Russians for the list, which bans travel to the United States and freezes U.S.-based financial holdings. Administration officials said they supported calling attention to human rights violations, despite threats of retaliation by Russia.
“We have our differences with Russia,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said. “Human rights is an issue that we have disagreements with them on at times, and you know, we are very frank and candid about that.”
Russian officials had warned of possible responses ranging from similar travel bans for U.S. citizens to curtailing cooperation in other areas. Hours before the list was published, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the government would “abide by the rules of parity” in reacting to the U.S. decision.
In fact, the initial response from Moscow was relatively muted, as some officials expressed relief that the list was relatively short and did not name senior officials close to President Vladimir Putin. Some congressional backers of the Magnitsky measure had predicted the list would include hundreds of names.
“The U.S. president’s administration has taken a minimal route, and this means it decided not to risk an exacerbation of the political crisis with Moscow,” Alexei Pushkov, head of the international affairs committee for Russia’s lower house of parliament, told Russia’s Interfax news agency. He said the White House was showing a “more reasonable attitude” to prevent a further souring of relations with Moscow.
The publication of the list comes just two days ahead of a visit to Moscow by Thomas E. Donilon, the White House national security adviser. The administration, after famously declaring a “reset” of relations with Russia four years ago, has locked horns with Putin over a host of issues since, particularly the crisis in Syria.
Magnitsky was working for an American law firm in Moscow when he discovered a $230 million tax fraud allegedly being carried out by Russian police and tax officials using documents stolen from the investment company Hermitage Capital.
Magnitsky was arrested after confronting the officials. He died in a detention facility in November 2009 while awaiting trial on charges that he was involved in tax fraud. Independent investigators concluded that he had been beaten and tortured.
A senior U.S. official confirmed the existence of a second list of Russians who were linked to human rights abuses but not publicly named. The official said their identities were withheld under a provision of the Magnitsky Act that allows for some names to remain secret because of “national security” considerations. Those on the secret list face travel restrictions but would not be subject to an asset freeze, the official said.
Englund reported from Moscow.