WASHINGTON -- U.S. officials have imposed new financial sanctions on a Chechen law enforcement agency linked to a recent "gay purge" that has resulted in dozens of gay and bisexual men being imprisoned, and in some cases, tortured in the North Caucasus region.
The Treasury Department also said in a statement on May 16 that it was sanctioning a top-ranking Chechen for his alleged links to the 2015 assassination of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.
The individuals targeted were sanctioned under the 2012 Magnitsky Act. That law, and a wider one passed four years later, gives U.S. officials the authority to sanction people and entities for human rights abuses in Russia and around the world.
The Russian Embassy in Washington said that the U.S. sanctions would be met with "reciprocal measures," according to the state-run TASS news agency.
"Washington's new anti-Russian steps are associated with the so-called Magnitsky Act," the embassy said.
"They represent an attempt to force unilateral measures of coercion that go against international law and cannot be considered as a civilized way of communication between countries," it added.
Sigal Mandelker, the U.S. undersecretary of the Treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in a statement that the sanctions targeted an agency called the Terek Special Rapid Response Team.
The Terek unit and its commander Abuzayed Vismuradov have been allegedly linked to the roundup of gay men in Chechnya.
Russian and international activists first warned of what came to be known as the "gay purge" in Chechnya in early 2017.
A second wave of detentions was reported to have occurred in late 2018 and early 2019.
Another Chechen official, Ruslan Geremeyev, was also sanctioned for his alleged role in plotting the killing of Nemtsov, who was gunned down just meters from the Kremlin walls in February 2015.
Geremeyev is a former commander of a notorious Chechen military unit known as Sever, and a close confidant of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who has himself been sanctioned under the Magnitsky Act.
“We are focused on holding accountable those responsible for atrocious acts within Russia, including the extrajudicial killing of Boris Nemtsov and the pervasive abuse of LGBTI [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex] persons in Chechnya,” Mandelker said in the statement.
One of Nemtsov’s closest deputies, Vladimir Kara-Murza, called the measure imposed on Geremeyev "groundbreaking."
There was no immediate reaction to the announcement by the Kremlin, but Kadyrov, who has mocked the United States in the past for sanctioning him, responded with a sarcastic post to his channel on Telegram.
"I officially inform the authors of these scribblings that you all are now on our lists!" he wrote.
"And to those who artificially make enemies of us, I will suggest that if you have one ounce of manliness in your blood, then you will come visit and we will draw you a Magnitsky List that you will remember for your entire life, and tell your grandchildren about!"
Three other people hit with sanctions on May 16 were the head of a prison colony in the northern Russian region of Karelia, and a man and a woman implicated in the 2009 death of Sergei Magnitsky, after whom the U.S. law is named.
Magnitsky was a Russian accountant who helped uncover a massive tax fraud that stole $230 million from the Russian Treasury.
He was later jailed by Russian officials, accused of perpetrating the fraud himself, and he died in a Moscow jail after suffering medical problems and mistreatment that rights activists said amounted to torture.
After his death, he was put on trial and convicted of the tax fraud.
The man who originally employed Magnitsky, British-American investor William Browder was sentenced in absentia to nine years in prison in December 2017.