US blacklists five Russians, including Putin aide, over human rights abuses

Alexander Bastrykin, the head of Russian Investigative Committee, waits before an annual state of the nation address attended by Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, on Dec 1, 2016.
Alexander Bastrykin, the head of Russian Investigative Committee, waits before an annual state of the nation address attended by Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, on Dec 1, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) meeting with US President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the UN conference on climate change - COP21 in Le Bourget, on Nov 30, 2015.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) meeting with US President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the UN conference on climate change - COP21 in Le Bourget, on Nov 30, 2015.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - The Obama administration is blacklisting five Russians, including the government's chief public investigator who is a close aide to President Vladimir Putin, for human rights abuses, throwing down a gauntlet to President-elect Donald Trump nearly two weeks before he takes office with a promise to thaw relations with Russia.

The sanctions, which the Treasury Department announced on Monday (Jan 9), are not related to allegations of Russian hacking during the presidential election, according to a senior official. But they carry symbolic weight at a charged moment, as perhaps the last visible act the United States will take against Russia before power is transferred in Washington.

The biggest name on the administration's sanctions list is Mr Alexander I. Bastrykin, who reports directly to Mr Putin and has carried out an array of political investigations on his behalf.

Mr Bastrykin, officials said, was complicit in the case of Sergei L. Magnitsky, a lawyer who died in detention in November 2009 and whom the Magnitsky Act was named after.

Under that 2012 law, which was passed by Congress with Democratic and Republican support, the Treasury and Justice Departments must investigate and sanction Russian individuals who were involved in that case and subsequent cover-ups, or in other cases of human rights abuses.

The sanctions imposed include a ban on travel to the United States and a freezing of any assets held by US financial institutions or transactions with those institutions.

The Obama administration has enforced the law with varying degrees of enthusiasm, depending on the state of relations between the United States and Russia. But its final list of names, particularly with the inclusion of Mr Bastrykin, is considered unusually robust, said the senior official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the announcement was not yet public.

The Magnitsky Act has long antagonised the Russian government, setting off a series of tit-for-tat actions.

Shortly after the law was passed, the Russian Parliament voted to ban the adoption of Russian children by Americans. In 2013, Russia released a list of Americans barred from traveling to Russia for purported human-rights violations.

Just before Christmas, the Treasury Department put sanctions on 15 Russian individuals and companies for their dealings in Crimea and Ukraine.

Mr Trump is widely expected to ease that economic pressure campaign. But it may be harder for him to ignore the requirements under the Magnitsky Act, since it was passed with bipartisan support and requires the executive branch to submit a list of names on an annual basis.

In addition to Mr Bastrykin, the administration is targeting Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitri Kovtun, two Russian intelligence officers who were identified by the British authorities as the men who poisoned a fellow Russian spy, Alexander Litvinenko, in London in 2006.

Also on the list are Stanislav Gordievsky and Gennady Plaksin, two lower-level officials who the United States said were involved in the cover-up of Magnitsky's death.