WASHINGTON — The Trump administration sanctioned a wide-ranging list of individuals on Thursday in the first application of a new law that allows the US government to target people alleged to be responsible for human rights abuses and corruption around the world.
The varied list of targets includes an Israeli billionaire, a former Gambian president, a Russian businessman, and a former Burmese military official accused of helping to lead an ethnic cleansing campaign against the country’s Rohingya minority.
The aggressive sanctions came as a welcome surprise for some human rights advocates, who had wondered whether, under Trump, the US would enforce the law, which passed with bipartisan support in Congress and was signed in the final days of the Obama administration.
“I think the bipartisan nature is really important,” said Andrea Prasow, the deputy Washington director at Human Rights Watch. “We didn’t know how seriously they were going to take it until they issued the sanctions today.”
Prasow said the move was part of a growing international push to take on human rights abuses and corruption, with countries such as Canada and the UK enacting similar measures. “This is part of a new wave of global accountability,” Prasow said. “And the US really was leading on it and is leading on it.”
“They are serious names. It’s not that they just went to try and check the box.”
The Magnitsky Act was signed into law in 2012 as a means to punish Russian officials for the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who was beaten to death in a Russian prison. He had been jailed for investigating fraud involving senior Russian officials, and his death sparked an outcry in the US, where Sens. John McCain and Ben Cardin led efforts on the bill. Russia responded with outrage, banning the adoption of Russian children by US couples, and the act has been a point of contention between the two nations ever since. Its scope was expanded in December 2016, allowing the US to target people accused of human rights abuses and corruption globally.
The Magnitsky Act became part of the Russia scandal embroiling the Trump administration when it was revealed that during the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump Jr. met with a Russian lawyer who had been hired to lobby against the act; ahead of the meeting, Trump Jr. was reportedly promised damaging information about the Clinton campaign, which he has said did not materialize.
In addition to more than a dozen people targeted as part of the global act, the Treasury Department also announced on Wednesday that it had sanctioned five people as part of the original Magnitsky Act. These included the pro-Russian Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who has been accused of rights abuses against gay men, and three people alleged to be involved in the fraud Magnitsky had been investigating.
Sean Bartlett, the spokesman for Maryland Sen. Cardin, said the new sanctions would renew focus on the Magnitsky Act’s importance: “Senator Cardin wanted to make sure that the political noise caused by Donald Trump Jr.’s questionable decision to meet with Russians during the campaign didn’t cloud the legacy of Sergei Magnitsky and the importance of Sergei’s namesake legislation in advancing international human rights law.”
In a joint statement, Sens. McCain and Cardin praised the first round of global sanctions, saying that they “hold human rights abusers and corrupt individuals accountable for their heinous crimes.”
“In Sergei’s name, and in the spirit of the many unsung and unnamed individuals around the world who have suffered human rights abuse for uncovering corruption and fighting for freedom, the United States continues to support their efforts and seek accountability and justice with the Global Magnitsky sanctions out today,” the statement said.
Jonathan Schanzer, a former Treasury official who is senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said that on the issue of corruption, which is notoriously hard to prove, those targeted by the new sanctions could see a “ripple effect,” thanks in part to the information the US has now made public.
“The devil is going to be in the details, the intelligence that is going to be declassified in support of these allegations,” he said. “If you’re going to expose the methods by which these individuals have been profiting off the backs of their own people, these are things that I think are going to provide the greatest value and the greatest deterrent for future corruption.”
He added: “It’s going to be a smack in the mouth for those being targeted. This has the potential for their dirty secrets to finally be aired. … Once these guys are out there then the hunt is on for their shell companies and whatever assets they may be holding in other names.”
In addition, Schanzer said, the ability to target human rights abusers with sanctions provides a new financial weapon for the US. “It’s putting some teeth on this piece of legislation. So it gives us a new tool in the economic warfare toolbox. And it’s a potentially powerful one,” he said.
The list of those sanctioned appears random — the result of an interagency process spearheaded by the State Department, the Treasury Department, and the Department of Justice. But Schanzer said that a pattern will likely emerge over time. “What’s missing here is what is the impetus for this list,” he said. “Treasury will have opportunities to explain itself, and the Trump administration will start to explain itself over time.”
Prasow, of Human Rights Watch, said that all the names are relatively big fish, and that their inclusion sends a message. “They are serious names. And that matters,” she said. “It’s not that they just went to try and check the box.”
Here are the individuals the US cited and the allegations against them. You can read the full Treasury Department statement here.
Jammeh became president of Gambia in 1994 and stepped down in 2017. The US accused him of creating a terror and assassination squad called the Junglers who killed religious leaders, journalists, members of the political opposition, and former members of the government. Jammeh also used a number of corrupt schemes to plunder state coffers for his personal gain.
Roberto Jose Rivas Reyes
Drawing a reported government salary of $60,000 per year, Rivas has amassed a sizeable personal fortune and has overseen electoral fraud. Efforts to investigate him have been blocked by Nicaraguan government officials, the US said.
An Israeli businessman and billionaire, Gertler has used his friendship with President Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to amass a fortune through opaque and corrupt mining and oil deals.
Among the biggest dealers of arms and munitions in the Balkans, Tesic provides bribes and financial assistance to officials to secure contracts, including taking potential clients on expensive vacations and paying their children’s tuition at Western schools or universities.
Maung Maung Soe
The former chief of the Burmese Army’s Western command, Maung Maung Soe oversaw the military operation in Burma’s Rakhine State responsible for widespread human rights abuse against Rohingya civilians.
Benjamin Bol Mel
Once the private secretary to South Sudanese President Salva Kiir, Bol Mel now is president of ABMC Thai-South Sudan Construction Company Limited, which has been awarded contracts worth tens of millions of dollars by the government of South Sudan.
Mukhtar Hamid Shah
A Pakistani surgeon specializing in kidney transplants, Shah has been involved in the kidnapping of Pakistani laborers and the removal of their kidneys.
The daughter of former Uzbekistan leader Islam Karimov, Karimova headed a powerful organized crime syndicate that used state institutions to expropriate businesses, monopolize markets, solicit bribes, and administer extortion rackets. She was charged in July with hiding foreign currency, illegally selling radio frequencies and land parcels, and embezzling state funds. Her corrupt activities caused Uzbeks to pay some of the highest cell phone rates in the world.
Angel Rondon Rijo
A politically connected businessman and lobbyist in the Dominican Republic, Rondon funneled money from Odebrecht, a Brazilian construction company, to Dominican officials, who in turn awarded Odebrecht projects to build highways, dams, and other projects. In 2017, Rondon was arrested by Dominican authorities and charged with corruption for the bribes paid by Odebrecht.
The son of the prosecutor general of the Russian Federation, Chayka has used his father’s position to unfairly win state contracts and put pressure on business competitors.
When Gao was the Chaoyang branch director of the Beijing Public Security Bureau, human rights activist Cao Shunli was detained and fell into a coma. Her body showed signs of emaciation and neglect.
As commander of an elite Ukrainian police unit, Kusiuk was accused of being a leader of an attack on peaceful protesters on Nov. 30, 2013, and took part in the killings of activists on Kiev's Independence Square in February 2014. He is now thought to be in hiding in Moscow.
Julio Antonio Juarez Ramirez
A Guatemalan congressman, Juarez is accused of ordering an attack in which two journalists were killed and another injured.
As the former director general of Gambia’s intelligence agency, Badjie is alleged to have presided over abuses throughout his tenure and to have led the assassination squad known as the Junglers.