WASHINGTON -- The United States has slapped visa bans and asset freezes on 18 individuals, most of them Russian officials, whose names have been published on the "Magnitsky list."
The move could further strain ties between Washington and Moscow, which has vowed swift retaliation.
It could also foreshadow a struggle between the White House and the members of Congress who advocate a longer list targeting higher-ranking Russian figures.
The majority of the men and women identified -- 16 -- are targeted for their role in the case of whistle-blowing Moscow lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. The 37-year-old Magnitsky died following nearly a year of pretrial custody after implicating Russian officials in a scheme to steal $230 million from state coffers.
His case has since become an international symbol of injustice and a marker of Russia's troubling human-rights and rule-of-law record.
Among the mostly low- to mid-level officials sanctioned is Uzbekistan-born Oleg Silchenko. As a senior investigator in the Russian Interior Ministry, he allegedly arranged for Magnitsky's arrest and abuse in prison in an effort to make the lawyer withdraw his allegations against ministry colleagues.
Interior Ministry investigator Pavel Karpov, who is also sanctioned, was implicated by Magnitsky in stealing government funds and is allegedly tied to organized crime. Karpov says he is innocent.
Officials from the Russian Prosecutor-General's Office, the Moscow Tax Authority, and the two Moscow prisons in which Magnitsky was held are also included on the list. The officials' involvement in the case range from allegedly authorizing fraudulent tax refunds to fabricating the legal case against Magnitsky to denying the lawyer's repeated requests for medical care while in custody.
The U.S. Congress passed legislation in 2012 that mandated that the White House compile a list of Russian officials -- connected to the Magnitsky case and otherwise -- that it deems guilty of gross rights violations.
The two men on the list not connected to the Magnitsky case are both from Chechnya. They are Kazbek Dukuzov, who is accused of murdering U.S. journalist Paul Klebnikov in Moscow in 2004, and Lecha Bogatyryov, who has been connected to the 2009 murder of a critic of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.
Andrew Kuchins, the director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, called the list an effort by the administration to "do what it needed to do and then move on."
"The administration is trying to minimize the damage [to U.S.-Russian relations]. They know there's going to be a negative response to this in Moscow, but I think that probably some in Moscow are breathing a sigh of relief that the list is not more extensive and harder-hitting," Kuchins said.
The Obama administration initially opposed the idea of a Magnitsky list when it emerged in 2010, fearing that it could damage the "reset" with Russia.
But the initiative had broad bipartisan backing in Congress. Lawmakers would eventually attach the Magnitsky legislation to a Russian trade bill that the administration supported. Obama signed the joint measures in late 2012.
Russia responded by banning U.S. adoptions of Russian children. Moscow has also pledged to release a list of sanctioned U.S. officials as soon as April 13.
Still, Russian lawmakers acknowledged that the list could have been more extensive.
"The U.S. presidential administration decided not to take the path of aggravating a political crisis with Moscow," Aleksei Pushkov, the head of the State Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee, told Interfax. He said the White House had adopted "a more reasonable attitude" than Congress.
A 'Timid' List
The U.S. lawmakers who led the push for sanctions had a different reaction.
They described the list as a reasonable first step but said it fell far short of the spirit of the Magnitsky legislation. U.S. Senator Benjamin Cardin (Democrat-Maryland) had advocated sanctions against 60 Russian officials and U.S. Representative James McGovern (Democrat-Massachusetts) recommended punishments for more than 200.
In a statement, Cardin said, "With this concrete action we send more than just a symbolic message that gross violators of human rights in Russia, and around the world, cannot escape the consequences of their actions even when their home country fails to act."
But he also promised to "ensure that those who should be on this list are in fact on this list."
McGovern described the list as "timid," with "more significant omissions than names."
He said that he had been assured by the Obama administration that additional officials will be sanctioned as new information becomes available -- a step that the legislation requires.
U.S. Senator Roger Wicker (Republican-Mississippi), one of the original co-sponsors of the Magnitsky legislation, told RFE/RL: "The list released is at least an opening effort by the administration, but its brevity is disappointing. So I look forward to continued engagement with my colleagues and with the Obama administration to ensure that the intent of the Magnitsky act is fully realized."
Congressional and NGO sources described the omission of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and Russian Investigative Committee Chairman Aleksandr Bastrykin as "disappointing" and "to be revisited."
Rights groups had named the two men among dozens of Russian officials, including several connected to the case against former Yukos oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, for potential sanctions.
U.S. officials told journalists on background that the Obama administration had also chosen to deny visas to other Russian officials but keep their names in a classified annex.
The Magnitsky legislation allows for that option if doing so is deemed "vital for national security interests." However, the administration also reserves the right to waive those visa bans.