MOSCOW—Earlier this week, the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control announced five new additions to the Specially Designated Nationals List under the Magnitsky Act—a federal law that provides for visa bans and asset freezes on Russian officials involved in human rights abuse. This decision brought the number of people sanctioned under the Act to forty-four. It also shattered an unspoken glass ceiling that had been in place ever since the Magnitsky Act was passed by strong bipartisan majorities in both houses of Congress, and over objections from the Obama administration, in 2012. All of those placed on the sanctions list—at least in its unclassified section—have been low- or mid-ranking officials well outside of Vladimir Putin’s close circle.
Until now. Among the new names announced on January 9th was General Alexander Bastrykin, chairman of Russia’s Investigative Committee and a close confidant of Putin’s since their university days in Leningrad.
General Bastrykin exemplifies the very group of people the Magnitsky Act was intended to target: a high-ranking government official who uses his power for political reprisals. As head of Russia’s top law enforcement body—and before that as deputy prosecutor-general—he personally oversaw all of the notorious politically motivated cases, including those against the Bolotnaya Square protesters; against Yukos oil company and its executives (including Vasily Alexanyan, who was kept in prison despite severe ill-health and in violation of a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, and was only released to die at home at the age of thirty-nine;) against opposition activists and their family members, such as Sergei Udaltsov, Leonid Razvozzhayev, and Oleg Navalny. It was also Bastrykin who, in 2012, took Sergei Sokolov, deputy editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, to a forest near Moscow and threatened to kill him over the newspaper’s critical coverage.
From the moment the Magnitsky Act become law, Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov advocated for the sanctioning of General Bastrykin. He did so both publicly, in statements and interviews, and privately, in meetings with Members of Congress on his trips to Washington, at which the author of this blog was also present. In March 2014, shortly after Nemtsov’s last visit to the US, a joint letter from Representatives Jim McGovern (D-MA) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) publicly urged President Obama to add Bastrykin to the Magnitsky List.
But for all those years, he seemed too powerful to be sanctioned. That ceiling is now gone. Just as the authors of the Magnitsky Act had intended, those involved in gross violations of human rights will not be welcome in the United States, regardless of their rank or influence. It should stay this way—whatever the party colors of the administration in the White House.