WASHINGTON -- A tussle is brewing in Washington over who will be included on a U.S. list of sanctioned Russian officials to be published next month.
Officials with the State Department are reportedly advocating steps that would shorten the politically sensitive "Magnitsky list," while members of Congress and NGOs who support a more sweeping list are vowing to push back.
A list of sanctioned officials is required by a law Congress passed in late 2012 designed to punish Russian officials implicated in the prosecution and death of Moscow lawyer and whistle-blower Sergei Magnitsky.
The 37-year-old died in jail in 2009 after he was repeatedly denied medical care and beaten. He had been arrested after implicating officials from Russian government ministries in a complex scheme to steal $230 million from state coffers. His death became an international symbol of Russia's rule-of-law and human rights transgressions.
In addition to slapping visa bans and asset freezes on officials connected to the Magnitsky case, the law also mandates sanctions against Russian officials who have committed other perceived gross rights violations. Those sanctions could deepen the law's impact on U.S.-Russian relations, which have sunk in the wake of its passage.
Anticipating a furious reaction from Moscow and concerned over the legislation's potential impact on relations, the Obama administration opposed the measures.
President Barack Obama has until April 13 to publish the list of sanctioned officials in the federal register. He has the option of keeping some names classified for "vital national security" reasons.
The White House has given no indication of who it is considering. A list endorsed by members of Congress of officials implicated in the Magnitsky case contained about 60 names.
Congressional and NGO sources say the State Department, as required by the law, has requested input from civil-society groups on which additional officials should be considered for inclusion.
Representatives from about 10 NGOs, including Freedom House and Human Rights Watch, met with State Department officials in mid-February, ahead of an internal deadline for a first draft of the list. Most have submitted their recommendations.
Sources tell RFE/RL that State Department officials have advocated a narrow approach to compiling the names. The plan would rely on tough standards that the Treasury Department uses when it levies financial sanctions.
A list based on those standards, which are laid out in the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, would make each name public but would be significantly shorter than what backers of the legislation in Congress and civil society say they had in mind.
Counter To Spirit Of Law?
Advocates of a broader approach say the administration's tack would run counter to congressional intent and be a breach of the law itself.
They point to the text of the law, which calls on the president to identify Russian officials who, "based on credible information," are responsible for "gross violations of internationally recognized human rights" in the Magnitsky case and others.
The Treasury Department's role in the process, they say, is meant to be limited to enacting asset freezes, not determining who is a sanctions-worthy human rights violator.
A congressional source with knowledge of the matter said that if the State Department followed through with the approach it is advocating, it would be a "serious reason to cry foul."
When asked for comment, a State Department official would only confirm the deadline for publication of the list.
Representative James McGovern (Democrat-Massachusetts), a leading supporter of the Magnitsky sanctions, warned against efforts to "weaken" the law at a March 4 civil-society forum on Russia.
"If there are some bureaucrats in my own government who, for whatever reason, choose not to implement the law in the spirit that it was written and it was passed, then I assure you that Congress will strengthen that law -- amend that law with even tougher language," McGovern said.
The law already includes provisions designed to hold the administration accountable to Congress for the Russians it selects. The president must explain exclusions from the list if requested to do so. The White House is also required to update the list "as new information becomes available" and justify any lack of an update.
NGO representatives who spoke to RFE/RL say they are ready to defend their recommended names.
A Longer List
Multiple NGOs included Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and Aleksandr Bastrykin, the head of Russia's powerful Investigative Committee, on their suggested list of names.
Kadyrov has long been accused by Russian and Western civil society of involvement in murders, torture, and disappearances of opponents and activists. Bastrykin, who has also been implicated in the Magnitsky cover-up, has initiated a string of prosecutions against opposition figures. He was behind controversial investigations into former Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
Several NGOs also listed other figures linked to the Khodorkovsky case.
Matthew Rojansky, of Washington's Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says the Obama administration is trying to strike a delicate balance during a "crisis moment" in its relationship with Moscow.
"The administration has been reluctant all along to essentially put a political fine point on a long-standing issue in the U.S.-Russia relationship," Rojansky says. "But now it really does have to play ball with the congressional approach to the issue, at the same understanding that if anything it does, at least publicly, is noted by the Russian side, then the response is going to be asymmetric once again."
Shortly after Congress passed the Magnitsky legislation, the Kremlin retaliated by banning U.S. adoptions of Russian children.
Moscow has also threatened to blacklist alleged human rights violators from the United States. Those names are reportedly being compiled in a "Guantanamo list."