WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration faces a looming deadline to respond to U.S. lawmakers calling for fresh sanctions against alleged Russian rights abusers, a move that supporters say can ratchet up pressure on the Kremlin over its recent actions in Ukraine.
The administration has until May 17 to respond to the lawmakers’ proposed additions to a list of 18 Russians already sanctioned under the Magnitsky Act, a U.S. law from 2012 that the Kremlin has decried as meddling in the country’s internal affairs.
“There’s never been a better time than now to make clear that we are serious about the next round of names on the Magnitsky list, and a robust set of new names would also send a message to Europe that the United States is not standing pat when we have arrows in our quiver with respect to new sanctions on Russia,” U.S. Senator Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, told RFE/RL.
The law introduces visa bans and financial sanctions on Russian officials implicated in the death of whistle-blowing Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in 2009, as well as other Russians deemed by the administration to be complicit in rights abuses.
The Obama administration initially opposed the legislation, arguing that existing levers were already in place to prevent corrupt Russian officials from obtaining U.S. visas.
But Magnitsky’s boss, U.S.-born British investor Bill Browder, lobbied intensely for the bill, which U.S. President Barack Obama signed into law in 2012 after Congress passed it with overwhelming bipartisan support.
Proponents of the law have since accused the White House of taking an overcautious approach to the blacklist in order to mitigate damage to bilateral ties with Russia.
Browder told RFE/RL, however, that he believes Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea and the ongoing unrest in Ukraine have changed the mood in Washington.
“I just can’t imagine who’s going to put their own career and reputation on the line by violating U.S. law in favor of Russian human rights violators. It could happen. Stranger things have happened. But just the mood that I sense in Washington was that nobody wanted to be on the side of Putin right now,” concluded Browder.
U.S. lawmakers had previously proposed far more names than were included in the inaugural blacklist released in April 2013, which consisted primarily of mid-level Russian law enforcement officials tax officials accused of involvement in the Russian lawyer's death in a Moscow pretrial detention facility in November 2009 at the age of 37.
Russian President Vladimir Putin last year called Magnitsky’s death a “tragedy” but said it was not the result of criminal actions.
Magnitsky’s friends and family say he was jailed, tortured, and denied medical treatment that could have saved his life as retribution for accusing law-enforcement and tax officials of stealing $230 million from Russian coffers in an elaborate tax fraud.
The approaching deadline was triggered by a January 17 request for additions to the blacklist submitted by four members of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- senators Robert Menendez, Bob Corker, Ben Cardin and John McCain.
The law requires the Obama administration to respond to such a request within 120 days. However, in December, the Obama administration missed a deadline for a mandatory annual report Congress on its enforcement of the Magnitsky Act.
White House spokeswoman Laura Lucas Magnuson said she could not confirm "the timing of any additional designations" but said that "a number of cases are under review, and the administration is determined to fully implement the act by making further designations."
Cardin, McCain, and other lawmakers have called for senior Russian officials -- including Aleksandr Bastrykin, the powerful head of Russia’s Investigative Committee -- to be sanctioned under the law as well.
Cardin told RFE/RL that while he expected to see a new set of names in response to the four senators’ appeal in January, he did not know exactly how the administration would respond.
“They haven’t told us what they're doing, don’t get me wrong,” Cardin said. “But in the conversations we’ve had, we have a common understanding of individuals that should be considered for the list. I’ll be disappointed if we don't see names come out.”
Written and reported by Carl Schreck, with reporting by Luke Johnson in Washington.