US names 18 Russians as human rights violators. What happens next?

The law requiring the administration's action roiled US-Russia relations after its passage last year. Some in Congress said the list of 18 rights violators was too short, but the US is bracing for blowback.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP/File
Nataliya Magnitskaya holds a portrait of her son, Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who died in jail, as she speaks with The Associated Press in Moscow, in 2009. The Treasury Department on Friday announced the names of 18 Russians subject to financial sanctions and visa bans because of their alleged violations of human rights.

The Obama administration, acting in accordance with a law passed by Congress last year that roiled US-Russia relations, named 18 Russian officials Friday who will face visa bans and a US assets freeze as a result of alleged human rights violations.

US officials said the administration is bracing for blowback from Russia – where irate lawmakers already reacted to the US law by approving a ban on American adoptions of Russian children.

The list was the first to result from passage last fall of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, named for a Russian whistleblower who died in prison in 2009 after publicly reporting massive tax fraud by Russian officials.

But on Capitol Hill, several lawmakers decried what they described as a surprisingly short list that failed to name any senior officials.

Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona said he was “deeply disappointed” that the administration named only 18 individuals – even though, he said, several prominent international human rights organizations and the European Court on Human Rights have made “compelling cases” against many times that number of Russian officials involved in human rights abuses.

Rep. Jim McGovern (D) of Massachusetts described the list as “timid and features more significant omissions than names.” But he nevertheless called the release of the initial list “an important first step” and said administration officials had assured him that “further additions will be made to the list as new evidence comes to light.”

A senior State Department official discussing the list with reporters Friday acknowledged that human rights are “sometimes a difficult part of our relationship with Russia,” but he insisted that “political considerations were not a factor” in drawing up the list of 18 names.

Some human rights organizations consulted by the State Department as it drew up the list and some congressional supporters of the legislation had anticipated a much longer list that might even reach into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s circle of advisers and political associates.

The State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to openly discuss the listing, confirmed that there is also a separate classified list, as called for in the law, but he refused to divulge even the number of names on that list.

In his statement, Senator McCain said “even that [classified] list is inadequate.” Individuals on the classified list are subject to a visa ban but not an assets freeze, since financial sanctions can only be levied against publicly named individuals.

Of the 18 publicly named Russians, 16 were listed over their involvement in the Sergei Magnitsky case, according to the State Department official. The Magnitsky Act directed the Treasury and State Department to go beyond the Magnitsky case in targeting Russian officials involved in human rights abuses. 

The Magnitsky action announced Friday seemed likely to add fuel to the fire burning through US-Russia relations – even if the initial list was a modest one.

President Putin has cited the Magnitsky Act in railing against what he sees as US meddling in Russian affairs. In December he signed the legislation that would ban adoption of Russian children by US citizens, and has called for Russia to name its own list of American human rights violators.

Some experts in US-Russia relations have played down the impact of the Magnitsky law, noting that it was passed at the same time Congress approved legislation that lifted Cold-War-era restrictions on trade with Russia as part of paving the way to Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization.

But others have cautioned that a US focus on human rights in Russia could dim prospects for advancing other priorities with Russia, such as missile defense and nuclear disarmament.

“We have strong relations with Russia,” the State Department official said, noting that there are “strong areas of cooperation, and strong areas of difference.

“Human rights,” he added, “is an area of difference.”

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