U.S. imposes sanctions on Chechen leader over human rights violations

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Department of State on Monday imposed sanctions on the leader of Russia’s southern region of Chechnya, barring him from traveling to the United States over accusations of gross violations of human rights, including torture.

FILE PHOTO: MMA - UFC 242 - Khabib Nurmagomedov & Dustin Poirier - Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - September 7, 2019 Head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov gestures while in attendance REUTERS/Christopher Pike

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement he was concerned that Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen leader and a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was using the novel coronavirus outbreak as an excuse to inflict further human rights abuses on people in the region.

“The Department has extensive credible information that Kadyrov is responsible for numerous gross violations of human rights dating back more than a decade, including torture and extrajudicial killings,” Pompeo said.

Kadyrov responded to Monday’s announcement on his Telegram channel with a photo of him smiling and standing in what appears to be an armory filled with weapons, holding light machine guns with tripods.

“Pompeo, we accept the fight. This will get interesting,” he said.

Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, wrote on Facebook in response to the sanctions: “It will be difficult to respond tit-for-tat, but we will think of something.”

Washington’s action also bars Kadyrov’s spouse and daughters from traveling to the United States.

The United States has previously blacklisted Kadyrov, including under a 2012 law known as the Magnitsky Act, which imposed visa bans and asset freezes on Russian officials linked to the death in prison of Sergei Magnitsky, a 37-year-old Russian auditor and whistleblower.

Kadyrov became head of Chechnya in 2007 in the aftermath of two brutal wars between Russia’s military and separatist and Islamist forces following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

Moscow credits Kadyrov with reining in a radical Islamist insurgency in the mainly Muslim North Caucasus region, but human rights advocates accuse him of presiding over widespread abuses.

Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis in Washington and Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber in Moscow; Additional reporting by Jonathan Landay and Tim Ahmann in Washington; editing by Jonathan Oatis