WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration on Friday designated 18 people under a U.S. law requiring a list of alleged human rights abusers in Russia, in a move that could cause more friction in U.S. ties with Moscow.
The list includes 16 people directly related to the case of Russian whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky, who died in his jail cell in 2009, as well as two others, a senior State Department official said on condition of anonymity. Those named on the list will be subject to visa bans and asset freezes in the United States under a law passed by Congress last year.
One U.S. lawmaker said the list was “timid” with “significant omissions,” while a senior Russian lawmaker said he thought President Barack Obama had done the minimum possible under the law so as not to worsen ties with Moscow.
U.S.-Russia relations are strained by what critics say is a crackdown on dissent in Russia under President Vladimir Putin, and disputes over security issues such as the war in Syria, which is a Russian ally.
“The appearance of any lists will doubtless have a very negative effect on bilateral Russian-American relations,” Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said in Siberia earlier on Friday. Peskov could not be reached for comment once the names on the list were known.
But Alexei Pushkov, the head of the State Duma’s international affairs committee, said the United States drew up a “minimal” list.
“The U.S. presidential administration decided not to take the path of aggravating a political crisis with Moscow,” Pushkov was quoted as saying by Interfax after the list was released.
The list was published three days before Obama’s national security adviser, Tom Donilon, is due in Moscow for talks that Russia said would include U.S. missile defense plans.
The names released by the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control included several officials who worked in the Russian Interior Ministry, and others who worked in courts, prosecutors’ or tax offices.
Also listed was Kazbek Dukuzov, one of two natives of the Chechnya region who were tried for the 2004 killing in Moscow of American journalist Paul Klebnikov. Both were acquitted in 2006.
Not listed was a close Putin ally whom some human rights advocates wanted to see named - Alexander Bastrykin, who heads Russia’s equivalent of the FBI. He has said there is no evidence Magnitsky death was connected with actions by officials.
Putin has said that Magnitsky’s death at age 37 was caused by heart failure. But the Kremlin’s own human rights council has aired suspicions that Magnitsky was beaten to death. His death spooked investors and tarnished Russia’s image abroad.
Congress passed the Magnitsky Act in December as part of a broader bill to expand U.S. trade with Russia. The Obama administration was never keen on the Magnitsky provisions, but the president signed the bill into law in December.
The law requires an initial list by Saturday of people linked to the Magnitsky case or other alleged “gross violations of internationally-recognized human rights” in Russia.
Russia considers the Magnitsky Act outside interference in its affairs, and warns it may respond by issuing a list of alleged U.S. human rights abusers. Moscow has already retaliated by outlawing adoptions of Russian children by American couples.
Democratic Representative James McGovern, one of the sponsors of the Magnitsky Act, called the list “timid” with “significant omissions.” Late last month, McGovern sent the White House over 230 names of people he said could potentially be included.
Not on the list but named in the Magnitsky Act itself for “wrongdoing” is Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-backed leader of Russia’s Chechnya region.
Kadyrov has not been linked to the Magnitsky case, but the U.S. State Department has noted allegations of his involvement in several killings, including that of human rights worker Natalia Estemirova. Kadyrov has denied involvement.
McGovern said in a statement he was told by the administration that the investigation was continuing and more names would be added as new evidence came to light.
The senior State Department official denied that political or diplomatic concerns were a factor in drawing up the list.
“I’ve learned not to try to take action based on what you think the Russian reaction might be. It’s better to do what’s in the law and what’s right and what reflects American interests and American values on human rights, and then you let the chips fall where they may,” the official said. “We played this one straight. We haven’t tried to game it.”
Russia expert Matt Rojansky of the Carnegie Endowment think tank said, “It makes a lot of sense that the administration would not want to deepen the tension in relations” on the eve of the Donilon trip to Moscow. Rojansky said Donilon’s visit was expected to include discussions of a possible Obama-Putin meeting at a gathering of the G-8 in Northern Ireland in June.
Rojansky noted there was also a classified annex to the list, which might include more politically sensitive names.
But Republican Senator John McCain, who presumably had seen the classified annex, said in a statement about the classified part, “Even that list is inadequate.”
Magnitsky worked for the investment fund Hermitage Capital Management in Moscow and was arrested on tax fraud charges shortly after he leveled similar accusations against Russian state officials in 2008.
Magnitsky is now being tried posthumously for tax evasion in Moscow.
The U.S. list included a number of people U.S. lawmakers and rights activists have urged be listed because of alleged links to the jailing of Magnitsky or a cover-up over his death.
Among them were Oleg Silchenko, a senior investigator at the federal Interior Ministry, who was allegedly in charge of the investigation into Magnitsky and ordered his detention.
Also named was Pavel Karpov, a senior investigator in the Interior Ministry at the time of the 2007 police raids on Hermitage Capital, and Artyom Kuznetsov, another Interior Ministry official who allegedly took part in the police raids.
Karpov, who has initiated a libel case against William Browder, the chief of Hermitage Capital, denied the accusations.
“I am expecting soon the decision from the high court of London which will confirm the falsehood of the accusation” Karpov told Interfax.
The list also included Olga Stepanova, an official from the Moscow Tax Office that authorized part of a $230 million tax refund that Magnitsky had told officials was suspect.
Another name on the list was Yelena Stashina, a judge who allegedly prolonged Magnitsky’s detention, and Andrey Pechegin, who worked in the general prosecutor’s office and allegedly denied complaints from Magnitsky about his treatment.
In addition to Dukuzov, the other name unrelated to the Magnitsky case was Lecha Bogatyrov, who has been implicated in the killing of Umar Israilov, a former bodyguard of the Russian Chechen leader Kadyrov. Israilov was shot to death in Vienna in 2009 after turning against Kadyrov. Bogatyrov reportedly escaped arrest and returned to Russia.
Additional reporting by Paul Eckert and Doug Palmer in Washington, and Steve Gutterman and Thomas Grove in Moscow; Editing by Warren Strobel, Paul Simao and Peter Cooney