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US Sanctions on Russia: An Overview. Part 4. Human Rights Abuse and Corruption

In these series of articles, we will review US sanctions on Russia. The chronology, what they are about and what are reasons why they appear. The article was prepared for publication by volunteers of the Res Publica – Civic Resilience Center.

According to the international human rights organizations and independent domestic media outlets, the following were among the common violations of human rights in Russia: deaths in custody, widespread and systematic torture of people in custody committed by the police, security forces and prison guards; hazing or dedovshchina in the Russian Army; neglect and cruelty in Russian orphanages and violations of the rights of children. According to a 2003 Amnesty International report there were discrimination, racism, and murders of members from the ethnic minorities. During the years following 1992 at least 50 journalists have been killed, some of them in armed conflict situations while others became targets of contract killings. In 2020, Russia ranked 129th out of 180 countries in the Corruption Perceptions Index by Transparency International, ranking lowest in Europe.

Journalist killings

The dangers that journalists face in Russia have been well known since the early 1990s but concern over the number of unsolved murders soared after Anna Politkovskaya's murder in Moscow on 7th October 2006.

In June 2009, a wide-range investigation by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) into the deaths of journalists in Russia was published. At the same time, the IFJ launched an online database that holds documents of over three hundred deaths and disappearances since 1993.

In the report published in September, Justice, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) repeated its conclusion that Russia was one of the deadliest countries in the world for journalists and added that it remains among the worst at solving their murders. Journalists died or were killed, the CPJ argued, because of the work they were doing and only one case has led to a partially successful prosecution.

Below is a link to the list of journalists (reporters, editors, cameramen, photographers) who have been killed in Russia since 1992. That includes the deaths from violent, premature and unexplained causes.

LGBT rights

Although the activity of the same-sex citizens between consenting adults in private was decriminalized in 1993, homosexuality is disapproved by most of the Russians and same-sex couples and households headed by same-sex couples are ineligible for the legal protection available to opposite-sex couples. The situation is the worst in the Chechen Republic. As a part of the Russian Federation, Russia's laws in Chechnya formally apply. De facto, there are no protections for LGBT citizens, and the Chechen authorities allegedly encourage the killing of people suspected of homosexuality by their families.

Anti-gay purges in the Chechen Republic have included forced disappearances — secret abductions, imprisonment, and torture — by authorities targeting persons based on their perceived sexual orientation. An unknown number of men whom authorities detained on suspicion of being gay or bisexual, have reportedly died after being held in what human rights groups and eyewitnesses have called concentration camps.

Allegations were initially reported on the 1 April 2017 in Novaya Gazeta, a Russian-language opposition newspaper, which reported that since February 2017 over 100 men had allegedly been detained and tortured and at least three had died in an extrajudicial killing. The paper, citing its sources in the Chechen special services, called the wave of detentions a „prophylactic sweep". Journalist who first reported on the subject went into hiding. There have been calls for reprisals against journalists who continue to report on the situation.

On 11 January 2019, it was reported that another “gay purge” had begun in the country in December 2018, with several gay men and women being detained. The Russian LGBT Network believes that around 40 persons were detained and two were killed.

Torture by Law Enforcement

One in every 10 Russians has experienced torture at the hands of law enforcement, according to a poll released to coincide with the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture on June 26, 2019. Of those who claimed to have experienced torture, 75 percent said it was aimed at humiliating or intimidating them. Results of the survey, which included 3,400 respondents in 53 Russian regions, were first published by the Russian daily newspaper Kommersant.

Neglect and Cruelty in Russian Orphanages

Human Rights Watch has found that from the moment the state assumes their care, orphans in Russia—of whom 95 percent still have a living parent—are exposed to shocking levels of cruelty and neglect. Infants classified as disabled are segregated into “lying-down” rooms, where they are changed and fed but are bereft of stimulation and lacking in medical care.

Once officially labelled as retarded, Russian orphans face another grave and consequential violation of their rights around the age of four, when they are deemed "ineducable," and warehoused for life in psychoneurological internaty. In addition to receiving little to no education in such internaty, these orphans may be restrained in cloth sacks, tethered by a limb to furniture, denied stimulation, and sometimes left to lie half-naked in their own filth. Bed-ridden children aged five to seventeen are confined to understaffed lying-down rooms in the baby houses, and in some cases are neglected to the point of death. Those who grow to adulthood are then interned in another "total institution," where they are permanently denied opportunities to know and enjoy their civil and political rights.

The “normal” abandoned children—those whom the state evaluates as intellectually capable of functioning on a higher level—are subjected to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment by the institutional staff. They are being beaten, locked in freezing rooms for days at a time, abused physically and sexually. They are humiliated, insulted and degraded, and provided inadequate education and training.

Staff members also instigate incidents such as beatings and humiliation or condone brutality by older orphans against younger and weaker ones. Some children describe the treatment as outrageous as being thrown out the window while nailed in a small wooden chest. When orphans finally leave their institutions, they suffer the everlasting damaging effects and the second-class status as orphans for the rest of their lives.


Racism in Russia appears mainly in the form of negative attitudes and actions by some Russians toward people who are not ethnically Russian. Traditionally, Russian racism includes anti-semitism and Tatarophobia, as well as hostility towards various ethnicities of the Caucasus, Central Asia, East Asia and Africa. In 2006, Amnesty International reported that racism in Russia was "out of control."

Between 2004 and 2008, there were more than 350 racist murders, and anti-racist SOVA organization, estimated that around 50% of Russians thought that ethnic minorities should be expelled from their region. According to the SOVA Center, since 2004 there were a total of 4537 racist attacks from which 572 where deadly.


Many young men are killed or commit suicide every year because of dedovshchina. There are no official statistics on the number of hazing cases in the army, but The New York Times reported that in 2006 at least 292 Russian soldiers were killed by dedovshchina. The BBC, meanwhile, reports that in 2007, 341 soldiers have committed suicide. A report from the Russian RBC news website stated that in 2018 more than 1100 military personnel were convicted on charges due to the abuse of power, and a further 372 for violence. Another military NGO — Mother’s Right — estimates based on the requests for help it has received that only 4% of military conscript deaths happen in the line of duty, while 44% are suicides.


Corruption in Russia is perceived to be a significant problem, impacting all aspects of administration, law enforcement, healthcare and education. The phenomenon of corruption is strongly established in the historical model of public governance in Russia and attributed to the general weakness of the Rule of Law in Russia. In 2020, Russia ranked 129th out of 180 countries in the Corruption Perceptions Index by Transparency International, ranking lowest in Europe.

The Russian brand of corruption thrives on globalization and depends on access to the global financial system. Under this model, weak property rights and a lack of Rule of Law support a corrupt system at home, where markets are distorted and courts are politicized. State funds are looted and assets are acquired through corporate raiding and asset stripping. Cronies then siphon off national funds to safe havens outside of former Soviet countries.

Offshored money is being used to buy real estate, education, and healthcare in the United States and in Europe. It is also being used back home to finance rigged elections, support local political figures, reward loyal cronies, and fund projects strategically important for geopolitical goals. Stolen money is used to buy influence and to keep foreign governments friendly. In the meantime, popular discontent brews domestically.

US Response and Magnitsky Act

In 2009, Russian tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky died in a Moscow prison after investigating a $230 million fraud involving Russian tax officials. Magnitsky was accused of committing the fraud himself and detained. While in prison, Magnitsky developed gallstones, pancreatitis and calculous cholecystitis and was refused medical treatment for months. After almost a year of imprisonment, he was allegedly beaten to death while in custody.

Magnitsky's friend Bill Browder, a prominent American-born businessman who had been working extensively in the Russian Federation after the collapse of the USSR, publicized the case and lobbied American officials to pass legislation sanctioning Russian individuals involved in corruption. Browder brought the case to Senators Benjamin Cardin and John McCain, who proceeded to propose legislation.

In June 2012, the United States House Committee on Foreign Affairs reported to the House a bill called the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012. The main intention of the law was to punish Russian officials who were thought to be responsible for the death of Sergei Magnitsky by prohibiting their entrance to the United States and their use of its banking system. The legislation was taken up by the Senate panel the next week, sponsored by Senator Ben Cardin, and cited in a broader review of the mounting tensions in the international relationship. Browder later wrote that the Magnitsky Act quickly got bipartisan support because the corruption exposed by Magnitsky was blatant beyond dispute. In May 2021 there were 55 persons in a list of sanctions according to the Magnitsky Act.

Another 14 Russian persons have been designated under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act (P.L. 114-328, Title XII, Subtitle F; 22 U.S.C. 2656 note) and EO 13818, that address human rights abuses and corruption in a more broad light.

The Support for the Sovereignty, Integrity, Democracy, and Economic Stability of Ukraine Act of 2014, as amended by §228 of CRIEEA (SSIDES; P.L. 113-95; 22 U.S.C. 8901 et seq.), requires sanctions on those responsible for serious human rights abuses in “any territory forcibly occupied or otherwise controlled” by Russia. In November 2018, the Administration designated three persons for human rights abuses in Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine.

Cover photo - Images from a security camera show the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, right, entering a building where she was killed, and a suspect in the murder / NTV, via Agence France-Press

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