Russians Go on TV to Say Sanctions Won't Matter

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MOSCOW -- Just two weeks after the Obama administration imposed sanctions on about two dozen Russians accused of human rights violations, Russian officials organized a very public "so what?" on Saturday, gathering officials on the list and assuring them in televised meetings that condemnation by the United States government would not hurt their careers. The jocular tone of the meetings suggested, in fact, that it might help.

"Are your knees trembling?" Interior Minister Vladimir A. Kolokoltsev asked Oleg F. Silchenko, an investigator who was included on the American list.

"I don't feel my knees trembling, because there is always only one truth," replied Mr. Silchenko, who oversaw the detention of Sergei L. Magnitsky, a lawyer who died in prison in 2009 after accusing officials of embezzlement from the federal budget.

Other men and women on the list stepped forward to attest publicly that the American sanctions, which forbid them from traveling to the United States and freeze any assets held there, would have no effect on them at all. Col. Natalia Vinogradova, who oversaw the posthumous prosecution of Mr. Magnitsky, said the ban did not bother her because she had no desire to leave Russia.

"I don't even have a foreign passport," she said. "I have never once been abroad."

Behind Saturday's extravagant show of indifference, of course, is a deep vein of anxiety. The 18 Russians whose names have been made public (others are classified) are not high-ranking officials or people who stand to lose much if their foreign assets are frozen. But it is unclear how many other names will be added or how many other countries will adopt measures similar to the American government's "Magnitsky list."

Russia has taken a series of steps to express its sharp displeasure, among them banning the adoption of Russian children by Americans and issuing its own list of 18 Americans who will henceforth be barred from Russia. But the meetings on Saturday were aimed at a Russian audience and seemed to carry the message that Russia's alienation from Western governments would have no real effect on citizens' lives.

"Really, life goes on," Mr. Kolokoltsev said. "No matter how many of these acts will be taken by the representatives of other states, no matter what matters they adjudicate with these acts, the citizens of Russia should not worry in any way."

The Magnitsky Act came about after Mr. Magnitsky's employer, William F. Browder, once a prominent investor in Russia, lobbied Congress to pass the sanctions. (Most of the people on the list are connected to the Magnitsky case.) It has proved a pivotal event in the bilateral relationship. Last week, President Vladimir V. Putin described the act's passage as "imperial behavior." Mr. Putin addressed the case again on Saturday, telling a television interviewer that Mr. Magnitsky's death was accidental.

"There was no malicious intent; there was no negligence," he said. "A tragedy happened. What, no one dies in American prisons? There was no torture, as some have said, and there was nothing else that required criminal prosecution of the responsible parties. The case is closed."

His remarks had a note of finality, especially given that Dmitri A. Medvedev, who was president when Mr. Magnitsky died and is now prime minister, dismissed numerous prison administrators at the time and called for an investigation. Days later, a top prison official acknowledged responsibility in testimony to a Kremlin advisory council, saying, "There were clear violations on our side" and "We are not trying to diminish our guilt in this case; it obviously exists."

Mr. Magnitsky, 37, had accused Russian officials of embezzling $230 million from the treasury; he died in pretrial detention nearly a year after his arrest. While in custody, he received a diagnosis of pancreatitis and gallbladder disease, and he wrote repeated requests for medical treatment, which were refused. The authorities said he had died of toxic shock and heart failure.

Mr. Silchenko, who oversaw Mr. Magnitsky's detention, has made few public comments about the death, but on Saturday he dismissed the condemnation as "an attack on the part of William Browder," who is wanted for tax fraud by Russian authorities.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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