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Putting the Bad Guys on Ice

Asset freezes and travel bans are cost-effective tools for punishing human-rights abusers. Why not use them more often?

Have you ever found yourself walking down a street in New York, Miami, or London and seen someone in designer clothing and expensive jewelry, speaking with a Russian accent, and stepping into a $150,000 car? And have you ever wondered where all their money came from? It may surprise you that some are no more than midlevel Russian government officials whose salaries are less than $20,000 a year. It may also surprise you that some of these elegant-looking people made their money by falsely arresting, torturing, and even killing people.

Since December 2012 the U.S. has attempted to make their lives less comfortable. The Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, passed by overwhelming majorities in Congress and signed into law by President Obama, imposes visa sanctions and asset freezes on Russian human-rights abusers. Known as the Magnitsky Act, it represents the first time in almost 40 years that the U.S. has sanctioned Russia for its human-rights record. The European Parliament passed its own version of the Magnitsky Act last spring. Targeting the travel plans and bank accounts of dozens of allies of Russian President Vladimir Putin has unsettled Putin like few other Western policies have. After he assumed the presidency for a second time in 2012, Putin said one of his primary foreign policy objectives was to fight the sanctions. So far the U.S. has sanctioned 34 individuals and created panic among members of Putin’s inner circle as they realize their money is no longer safe in the West.