Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian tax lawyer, died beaten and alone in a Moscow prison cell eight years ago. He was ill and neglected. He had exposed the theft of hundreds of millions of dollars by a corrupt cabal, and he paid for it with his life. Now, in a surprising and welcome turn of events, the Trump administration has taken action against the kind of people who tormented Magnitsky under a law that bears his name. Even if President Donald Trump has shown little interest, his administration has launched a commendably aggressive effort to identify and sanction people for corruption and human rights abuses.
The Global Magnitsky Act, passed by Congress last year, is an enlarged version of sanctions legislation originally aimed at Russians and enacted after Magnitsky’s death in November 2009. Both laws are being implemented in a way that should be a signal to kleptocrats and despots that their misdeeds will have consequences.
Ramzan Kadyrov, vicious leader of the Russian republic of Chechnya, was put on the latest sanctions list, for, among other things, extrajudicial killings and torture. He sniffed in response that he might "have a sleepless night ahead," then vowed that he would not come to the United States even if promised "all the gold and foreign exchange reserves in the country." But the sanctions are about more than just travel. They make it hard to use the international financial system to stash money in the West, and they can also crimp plans by those sanctioned to send their families to luxury condos in Miami and New York.
Also among those newly sanctioned is Maj. Gen. Maung Maung Soe, who was chief of the Myanmar army’s Western Command when it carried out what the State Department has called "ethnic cleansing" of Rohingya Muslims. Then there is the son of the Russian prosecutor general, Artem Chayka, who "leveraged his father’s position and ability to award his subordinates to unfairly win state-owned assets and contracts and put pressure on business competitors."
Still others include former Gambian president Yahya Jammeh, with "a long history of engaging in serious human rights abuses and corruption," and Gulnara Karimova, daughter of former Uzbek leader Islam Karimov. She "headed a powerful organized crime syndicate that leveraged state actors to expropriate businesses, monopolize markets, solicit bribes, and administer extortion rackets."
There should be more to come. In passing sanctions against Russia for meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign, Congress also ordered up a third list — due early next year — of President Vladimir Putin’s closest cronies. The word in Moscow is that many of them are desperate to stay off the list, worried about the potential stain of sanctions. Trump has dismissed the findings of Russia’s election intervention, so Congress will have to closely monitor his compliance. But the action on the Magnitsky Act is a good sign.
As a tool, these sanctions are not perfect. They may not change behavior. But they do send a message to thugs that they cannot expect to escape the notice of societies that strive to live by the rule of law.