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Forget Ukraine: Washington’s Now Targeting Russians Tied to a Dead Lawyer

Forget Ukraine: Washington’s Now Targeting Russians Tied to a Dead Lawyer

The Obama administration added more Russian names to a U.S. blacklist Tuesday, risking a further deterioration in Washington’s already troubled relationship with Moscow. The trigger wasn’t the high-profile standoff over the future of eastern Ukraine, however. This time around the hard-hitting measures came in response to the mysterious 2009 death of a Russian lawyer-turned-whistleblower.

The U.S. added 12 people — including doctors, prison officials and a judge — to a list of Russian human rights abusers for their alleged roles in the deaths of Sergei Magnitsky and two other Kremlin critics. Magnitsky, the highest profile victim, was arrested after trying to bring to light a wide-ranging tax fraud and died in prison after authorities allegedly denied him urgently needed medical care. The new U.S. move — which freezes the assets and denies visas to virtually everyone involved in Magnitsky’s arrest, trial and medical treatment — came in response to lobbying by powerful lawmakers who see the case as part of a broader pattern of abuse in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Washington took the move despite what appears to be a concerted attempt by the Putin government to prevent tensions with the West from rising further in the wake of Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and its dispatch of tens of thousands of troops to its border with eastern Ukraine. Putin has struck a more conciliatory tone recently in advance of a two-day trip to China designed to try to seal a massive gas deal with Beijing. The Russian strongman has promised to withdraw his forces from the frontier with Ukraine and praised the pro-Western government in Kiev — which he normally derides as a illegitimate junta — for launching what he implied was a serious dialogue with the pro-Russian forces who have taken over swaths of eastern Ukraine.

It’s not clear if those were just words, however. This is at least the third time Putin has promised to withdraw his forces from the Ukrainian border, but Pentagon officials and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said there’s been no sign yet of a withdrawal.

Washington has tried to force Putin’s hand by freezing the assets of 45 people, including some of the Russian president’s closest allies, and 19 banks and companies since March in an attempt to pressure Putin to reverse his annexation of Crimea and abandon his threats of invading eastern Ukraine. The Treasury Department insisted that Tuesday’s measures, by contrast, weren’t prompted by anything Putin did or didn’t do in Ukraine.

"Our action today is independent of Russia’s actions in Ukraine," a spokeswoman for Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control said in an email, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Instead, the Obama administration was responding to a congressional request made under a 2012 law the administration originally fought. The Magnitsky Act gave Congress the right to request sanctions against Russians accused of human rights abuses. The State Department, Treasury Department, and President Obama’s National Security Council all originally opposed the idea, but came around to it after prominent senators made it clear they wouldn’t vote to normalize trade relations with Russia unless the provision was attached.

"We appreciate the strong interest in Congress in this case and human rights in Russia, and will continue to coordinate with Congress on these issues," the Treasury spokeswoman said.

The new measures target doctors, investigators and a judge that worked on Magnitsky’s case, as well as four people who were allegedly involved in the $230 million tax fraud he exposed. Dr. Larisa Litvinova, for instance, head of the Butyrka Detention Center Hospital was added to the list for withholding "appropriate medical care for Magnitsky while he was being held at the pre-trial detention center," according to Treasury.  The administration previously added 18 names, mostly mid-level officials, to the Magnitsky list in April 2013.

Treasury also blacklisted two people allegedly responsible for the deaths of two other Kremlin critics, American journalist Paul Klebnikov and Chechen rebel fighter Umar Israilov.

American hedge fund manager Bill Browder, who helped push the Magnitsky Act into law after the Russian lawyer was arrested and died in a Moscow prison, said Tuesday’s list proves that the law can be used to punish Russians involved in new human rights abuses, not just those involved in the Magnitsky case.

"The hope is that imposing visa sanctions and asset freezes on human rights abusers can happen whether there’s a good relationship or a bad relationship, diplomatically, with a country," said Browder.