World News

U.S. Punishes Chechen Leader in New Sanctions Against Russians

Posted December 20, 2017 3:42 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON — The United States sanctioned five Russian individuals on Wednesday, including the leader of the Republic of Chechnya, for alleged human rights abuses and involvement in criminal conspiracies, a sign that the Trump administration is ratcheting up pressure on Russia.

The move, which comes despite a more accommodating tone that President Donald Trump has struck with President Vladimir Putin of Russia, blocks property investments that the individuals hold in the United States and forbids Americans from engaging in financial transactions with them.

The Treasury Department unveiled the sanctions under the authority of the 2012 Magnitsky Act, a U.S. law that freezes the assets — held in the United States — by Russian officials responsible for human rights abuses, and bars them from receiving U.S. visas. The law was named after Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who died in pretrial detention after exposing a $230 million tax-theft scam plotted by Russian officials.

“Treasury remains committed to holding accountable those involved in the Sergei Magnitsky affair, including those with a role in the criminal conspiracy and fraud scheme that he uncovered,” said John E. Smith, director of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. “We will continue to use the Magnitsky Act to aggressively target gross violators of human rights in Russia, including individuals responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture and other despicable acts.”

Among those sanctioned were Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic, and Ayub Kataev, a Chechen law enforcement official, for their roles in extrajudicial killings and torture. In 2013, Kadyrov was placed on a classified list of Russians that the Obama administration had barred from traveling to the United States and whose assets were frozen.

The list of prominent Russian figures was kept secret to avoid retaliation by Putin, but Treasury made public the sanctions against Kadyrov on Wednesday.

Kadyrov is a close ally of Putin and said in an interview last month that he was “ready to die” for the Russian president. Earlier this year, Kadyrov, who is a martial arts enthusiast, tried to soften his brutal image by starring in a reality TV competition called “The Team.” The show’s format was reminiscent of “The Apprentice” — the show that boosted Trump’s fame.

Also targeted by the sanctions are Alexei Sheshenya, Yulia Mayorova and Andrei Pavlov for their involvement in the criminal conspiracy uncovered by Magnitsky.

The new sanctions are likely to create more tension between Washington and Moscow, and they come as the Trump administration has given mixed messages about its approach to Russia.

In an outline of its national security strategy earlier this week, the Trump administration pointed to Russia as a rising threat that was seeking to undermine America’s influence and values. However, in a speech laying out the blueprint, Trump highlighted his cordial relationship with Putin and made no mention of Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Trump’s approach to Russia sanctions has been a thorny issue for his administration.

Last summer, Congress passed bipartisan legislation that imposed new sanctions on Russia and curbed the president’s authority to lift them. This fall, the Trump administration was criticized by lawmakers for not moving quickly enough on the sanctions, which were meant to punish Russia for actions in Eastern Europe, Syria and the 2016 election.

Discussions between Russians and Trump campaign officials about the possibility of easing Russia sanctions, with a particular focus on the Magnitsky Act, have drawn the attention of investigators who are probing the extent of Moscow’s interference in the election. In 2016, Donald Trump Jr. took a meeting with a Russian lawyer who was seeking changes to the law.

Treasury said on Wednesday that a total of 49 individuals have now been designated under the Magnitsky Act.