U.S. Penalizes Russians for Human Rights Violations
By PETER BAKER and ELLEN BARRY – April 12, 2013
“WASHINGTON — The United States imposed new sanctions Friday on about two dozen Russians accused of human rights violations, and Moscow vowed to retaliate as a fractious dispute between the two countries escalated further into a cold war-style, tit-for-tat clash.
The Obama administration barred 18 Russians from traveling to the United States and froze any assets they may have here under a new law intended to punish human rights violations. A handful of other more highly placed officials, including the head of the Russian region of Chechnya, were put on a list not publicly revealed. Russian officials promised to ban a like number of Americans.
The back and forth was reminiscent of the days when the two powers expelled equivalent numbers of diplomats to disrupt spy rings or signal displeasure, underscoring the depth of discontent just four years after President Obama resolved to reset the relationship. The dispute has already resulted in Moscow shutting down American adoptions of Russian orphans. The new sanctions came just days before Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, Tom Donilon, travels to Moscow to try to smooth over the tension.
The public sanctions targeted largely midlevel officials but the classified list included Ramzan A. Kadyrov, the president of Chechnya, a Kremlin ally known as a ruthless ruler, according to people briefed on the list. Others on the secret list were figures of such prominence in Russia that the administration feared identifying them might invite retaliation by President Vladimir V. Putin against similarly situated American officials like members of Congress.
While critics were disappointed the scope was not more expansive, some called it a powerful statement of values and a first step in a broader effort to hold human rights abusers accountable.
“We’ve just crossed the threshold,” said William F. Browder, once a prominent foreign investor in Russia who lobbied Congress to pass the law requiring sanctions after his lawyer died in a Moscow jail. “This is the end of impunity. This is a historic moment and the United States has made a very strong statement about human rights abuses.”
Russia has assembled its own list of Americans to ban, dubbed by some the “Guantánamo list,” in reaction to Friday’s move. “We will respond to it, and the American side knows it,” said Sergey V. Lavrov, the foreign minister. “The timing is bad.”
The move could undercut any good will engendered by an Obama administration decision to scale back missile defense in Europe. But there were signs the two sides hoped to keep the issue from escalating further. Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, said the administration was “very frank and candid” with Moscow about human rights but “we will engage with the Russians” on other important matters.
Moscow evidently expected the American action to be tougher. The newspaper Kommersant reported that the government had identified 104 Americans to ban if necessary. Aleksei K. Pushkov, the hawkish head of a parliamentary international affairs committee, told the Interfax news agency that the Obama administration was “taking the minimalist path” to avoid a deeper political crisis before Mr. Donilon’s visit.
Administration officials recognized that release of the list, required by Saturday under the law, would complicate Mr. Donilon’s visit. But they decided to proceed with the trip anyway because Mr. Obama is to meet with Mr. Putin on the sidelines of an economic summit meeting in Northern Ireland in June and then travel to Russia in September.
Olga Stepanova is one of several Russians barred from traveling to the United States. Credit Rosdosie, via Associated Press
Of the 18 Russians identified on the unclassified list, all but two are tied to the death of Sergei L. Magnitsky, the lawyer for Mr. Browder who was investigating official corruption only to be arrested and die in custody in 2009. His death became a cause célèbre for Russia critics, and the American sanctions law was named for him.
Among those targeted Friday were investigators, tax officials, judges and prison supervisors connected to Mr. Magnitsky’s case. The other two were Chechens implicated in prominent murders: Lecha Bogatirov, accused of gunning down Umar S. Israilov, a Chechen dissident, on the streets of Vienna in 2009, and Kazbek Dukuzov, accused of murdering the American journalist Paul Klebnikov in Moscow in 2004.
Many of those penalized were already barred from obtaining visas and it is not clear whether any of them have assets in the United States. Even so, Russians complained that the blacklist makes those on it pariahs and will make it hard for them to travel or invest in Europe.
“What is important for the Russian authorities is the fact that this list exists at all,” said Aleksei Makarkin, an analyst at Moscow’s Center for Political Technologies. “For the first time, there is officially some number of Russian officials considered guilty of violating human rights.”
Elena A. Panfilova, director of Transparency International in Russia, said that the officials had plenty of time to transfer any vulnerable property, but that: “It’s all about sending a message. If you restrict somebody’s rights, expect someone to restrict yours.”
American officials said the list was only the beginning. “This is not a one-time-only act,” said a senior administration official who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity. “The law makes clear that additional names should be added as additional information becomes available.”
Even so, the list disappointed lawmakers and rights activists in Washington. Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, called the announcement “so damaging” because the list was not robust enough. He vowed new legislation to go after abusers.
Representative Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat, had sent the administration a list of 280 Russians compiled by Mr. Magnitsky’s family for possible sanctions, including senior officials like Yuri Y. Chaika, the country’s general prosecutor.
Lawmakers like Mr. McGovern wanted the administration to apply the sanctions to anyone about whom there was “credible information” on rights violations. But the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control required a higher degree of evidence normally used with economic sanctions, because if challenged in court, it will have to justify depriving people of assets.
“While the list is timid and features more significant omissions than names, I was assured by administration officials today that the investigation is ongoing,” Mr. McGovern said.
David J. Kramer, president of Freedom House, an advocacy group, said he wished the list were longer but was encouraged that it went beyond the Magnitsky case. “The key now is to keep this as an ongoing process by which more names can be added,” he said.
Peter Baker reported from Washington, and Ellen Barry from Moscow.
A version of this article appears in print on April 13, 2013, on page A4 of the New York edition with the headline: U.S. Imposes Sanctions on Russians Accused of Human Rights Violations”