A bipartisan group of U.S. senators has introduced legislation to impose fresh targeted sanctions on Russian officials found to be complicit in the poisoning of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny.
The bill was introduced on February 3, one day after a Moscow court sentenced Navalny to nearly three years in prison for violating the terms of parole while in Germany where he was recovering from nerve-agent poisoning that he and his supporters say was ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Backing the legislation were Marco Rubio (Republican-Florida), Chris Coons (Democrat-Delaware), Ben Cardin (Democrat-Maryland), Mitt Romney (Republican-Utah), Chris Van-Hollen (Democrat-Maryland), and Dick Durbin (Democrat-Illinois).
“Following yesterday’s outrageous sentencing of Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, I’m proud to join Senator Coons in standing with the Russian people,” Rubio said. “The Holding Russia Accountable for Malign Activities Act will impose a cost on Putin, and his thugs, for their corruption and targeting of opponents.”
The bill directs the administration to determine if the Kremlin has violated U.S. laws prohibiting the use of chemical and biological weapons.
Navalny fell ill in Siberia in late August and was put in an induced coma and evacuated to Berlin. Within days, German doctors and military scientists determined that he had been targeted with a substance related to Novichok, a powerful military-grade nerve agent first developed by the Soviet Union. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) confirmed blood and urine samples from Navalny contained a chemical agent from the banned Novichok group.
The bill also requires a report on the assassination of Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, who was shot dead at close range on the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge, near the Kremlin in central Moscow, on February 27, 2015.
In June 2017, a Russian court sentenced a former Chechen battalion leader Zaur Dadayev to 20 years in prison for killing Nemtsov.
Four other Chechens were found guilty of involvement in the killing and sentenced to prison terms ranging from 11 to 19 years.
Critics, including relatives and colleagues of Nemtsov, say Russian authorities failed to determine who ordered the killing.
“Putin’s government has a long and sordid history of using murder and attempted murder to silence Russian citizens at home and abroad who have called attention to the regime’s corrupt and abusive practices,” Coons said.
“The Russian people are now demonstrating against the imprisonment of Aleksei Navalny through peaceful protests across their country. Instead of listening to their real grievances, Putin’s security forces have responded with unbridled brutality and arrested thousands. This bipartisan bill seeks to hold Putin and his inner circle accountable, while sending a clear message that the Russian government should immediately release Navalny and halt its repressive actions.”
More than 1,400 people across the country, including more than 1,100 in Moscow, were detained in protests following the court decision, according to the independent monitoring group OVD-Info.
Russia experienced some of the largest anti-government protests in a decade over the past two weekends with hundreds of thousands assembling in more than 100 cities around the country. Police at times used violence as they detained some 10,000 people.
“Strong leaders do not have to jail their adversaries to maintain power,” Romney said. “Putin and his cronies first poisoned Aleksei Navalny and when they were unsuccessful at that, they set up a sham trial and sentenced him to several years in prison. We must hold the Putin regime accountable for these acts, which are a shameless attempt to silence the voice of the Russian people fighting against corruption and for freedom and truth.”
“Russia will continue to use the tools of government to violently repress the opposition until the United States and the world say enough is enough. Poisoning or otherwise attempting to kill your critics and putting them in prison are not acceptable behaviors in any country,” Cardin said.
The current legislation is similar to an earlier effort by nearly the same group of senators in October.
The EU in December imposed sanctions on six Russians and a state scientific research center over the Navalny poisoning.
On February 3, the German government said further sanctions against Russia could not be ruled out following the Moscow court verdict against Navalny and after police used force against opposition protesters.
Chancellor Angela Merkel said the February 2 decision against Navalny was “far from any rule of law standards” and she demanded an end to violence against peaceful protesters in Russia.
Putin has denied that the authorities tried to poison Navalny and said Russian agents would have finished the job if they had wanted him dead.
He said in December that reports the Russian state had poisoned Navalny were part of a U.S.-backed plot to try to discredit him.