First use of EU “Magnitsky” human rights sanctions’ law targets Russian officials

Human rights sanctions against individuals are among the most important new tools in the struggle against impunity for grave human rights abusers.

The Norwegian Helsinki Committee welcomes the decision of the EU to ban four senior Russian officials and freeze their assets in the European Union over the arbitrary detention and sentencing of the anticorruption campaigner Alexei Navalny, and the violent repression of the demonstrations that followed across the Russian Federation. The decision was made public on 2 March, and the officials are: Alexander Bastrykin, Head of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation, Igor Krasnov, the Prosecutor-General, Viktor Zolotov, Head of the National Guard, and Alexander Kalashnikov, Head of the Federal Prison Service.

– The decision is a milestone in European human rights law and it is no coincidence that the first use of the new human rights sanctions’ law targets Russia, said Aage Borchgrevink, the head of the Documentation Section in the Norwegian Helsinki Committee. – The alleged assassination attempt and unfounded prosecution of Alexei Navalny echo the fate of the whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky, who was killed in a Moscow prison in 2009. The EUs new human rights sanctions regime was invented by the Justice for Sergei Magnitsky-campaign.

Sergei Magnitsky


The new EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Law was adopted on 7 December 2020. It is the first time it is used. The sanctions regime enables the EU to target persons responsible for acts such as genocide, crimes against humanity, serious human rights violations or international crimes such as torture, slavery, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests or detentions. The restrictive measures that entered into force Tuesday consist of a travel ban and asset freeze. In addition, persons and entities in the EU are forbidden from making funds available to blacklisted individuals, either directly or indirectly.

The Norwegian Helsinki Committee notes that the EU decision follows a recent decision by the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control to sanction other perpetrators of serious human rights abuses and corruption in Russia. These sanctions were applied against Ramzan Kadyrov, the Head of the Chechen Republic, and a network of six companies and five individuals closely linked to him. The crimes attributed to the group include the documented widespread abductions, torture, ill-treatment and killings of LGBTI persons and others, in the Chechen Republic, as well as the detention and persecution of journalists and activists.

The U.S. decision is based on documentation from a wide range of sources, including from the Norwegian Helsinki Committee. More information is available here. The U.S. sanctions are directed not only against the alleged perpetrators, but against the financial enablers and companies of Ramzan Kadyrov, and indicate that U.S. authorities considers the Chechen regime a joint criminal enterprise.

The situation in the North Caucasus remains a subject of concern in Europe. Frank Schwabe, rapporteur for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) reports after recent meeting with authorities in Russia and Chechnya that “there are many concerns about reports of serious human rights violations, such as illegal detentions, honour killings and attacks on LGBTI persons and still disagreements on these important issues.” The Norwegian Helsinki Committee notes that the widespread and systematic persecution of LGBTI persons in Chechnya may amount to a crime against humanity under international law.

– With the EUs global human rights sanctions regime being enforced, Magnitsky-type sanction laws are now applied by a majority of Western states against some of the individuals responsible for egregious violations of human rights in Russia, says Secretary General of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, Geir Hønneland. – Even if Russia continues to protect officials responsible for the gravest crimes, sanctions will hit perpetrators in an area where it hurts, i.e. in their ability to freely move assets and obtain funds. Magnitsky sanctions diminish the possibilities for state officials and their cronies to benefit financially from human rights abuse.

The Norwegian Helsinki Committee has for many years encouraged other European states to adopt similar global Magnitsky mechanisms on a national basis. Norway will consider a new Sanction Law this spring.

– Designation of individuals by sanctions authorities requires the authorities to organize and conduct serious fact-finding, verify the information from different sources, assess the credibility of information, including available documentation and information from numerous victims, witnesses, journalists, civil society groups and international organizations, said Hønneland. – Adoption of sanctions by increasing number of states is particularly encouraging for the human rights movement, which often works under dangerous and difficult conditions to establish a comprehensive picture of wrongdoing.

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Aage Borchgrevink

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Emil André Erstad

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