The United States slapped sanctions on Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov on Wednesday, accusing Russian leader Vladimir Putin's key regional ally of personal involvement in repression, torture and murder.
Kadyrov was added to the US Treasury's blacklist along with Chechen security official Ayub Kataev and three Russians linked to the corruption case uncovered by deceased whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky.
The sanctions were authorized under the 2012 Magnitsky Act, but came just weeks ahead of what may be broader US action against the "oligarch" class of super-wealthy Russians accused of profiting from and shoring up Putin's authoritarian rule.
Russian fury over the ever-tightening vice of US and international sanctions has undermined US President Donald Trump's stated hopes for warmer ties with Putin's Kremlin, and Wednesday's sanctions are expected to trigger another round of anger from Moscow's power players.
But these actions were taken under existing US legislation.
Next month, Trump and the US Congress will have to decide how to implement the far broader "Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act" of 2017 -- potentially striking a severe blow against Putin's inner circle.
US lawmakers, angered by Russia's alleged meddling in the US presidential election and invasion of Ukraine, passed CAATSA over objections from the White House to oblige a reluctant Trump to cast a wider sanctions net and prevent him from scaling back existing measures.
In January, US officials are expected to provide Congress with a list of wealthy Russians seen as members of Putin's political and financial support network, potentially exposing swathes of the Moscow business class to sweeping new limits on international transactions.
Trump may yet slow pedal any measures that would rock Putin's rule and permanently sink his hopes for closer US-Russia cooperation, but Wednesday's measures underline the determination with which some officials in the US administration are pursuing the cause.
A State Department official sought to downplay suggestions of a new rift. "This administration is committed to stable and productive relationship with the Russian Federation," the official told AFP, adding: "We believe the Russian understand the nature of our concerns."
- Gross violators -
The new names bring to 49 the number of people now subject to US economic sanctions under laws adopted following Magnitsky's death while in prison, according to the Treasury.
"We will continue to use the Magnitsky Act to aggressively target gross violators of human rights in Russia, including individuals responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture, and other despicable acts," said John Smith, who oversees the sanctions program.
The sanctions effectively lock their targets out of much of the international banking system and freeze any assets they may have in US jurisdiction.
Under legislation adopted in 2012, the United States targets individuals believed to be tied to a $230 million alleged tax fraud exposed by Magnitsky, to his subsequent death in custody or to attempts to cover this up.
Its scope was enlarged in 2016 to also target those accused of gross human violations committed in retaliation against people seeking to expose government wrongdoing.
Kataev, a prison warden, allegedly oversaw the detention and torture of gay men in Chechnya "in the first half of 2017," among other abuses, Treasury said.
Washington also sanctioned three Russians: Alexei Sheshenya, whose company the Treasury believes benefited from the tax scam uncovered by Magnitsky, as well as Yulia Mayorova and Andrei Pavlov, lawyers who represented companies which benefited from the scheme.
But it is the measure against Kadyrov that will garner the most attention.
- Personal torture -
Putin appointed the warlord and wrestler president of the autonomous Russian republic of Chechnya in 2007 and he has ruled the formerly rebellious region with great loyalty to his sponsor and great brutality to his people.
The US Treasury's designation of Kadyrov not only lists his alleged involvement in repression and the violent persecution of his and Putin's opponents, but accuses him personally.
"As the head of the Chechen Republic, Kadyrov oversees an administration involved in disappearances and extra-judicial killings," Treasury said.
"One of Kadyrov's political opponents was believed to have been murdered at Kadyrov's direction, after making allegations of torture and ill-treatment taking place in Chechnya, including alleged torture carried out by Kadyrov personally."
Kadyrov, in a message on his popular Instagram account accompanying footage of him lifting weights in a hooded camouflage fleecy onesie, laughed off the measures.
"So I was banned from entering America," he shrugged. "And am I going to apply for a visa. Do I have assets in US banks?
"I have said before, but I will repeat again for the especially forgetful that I would not have gone to the USA even if all the currency reserves in the country were promised to me as prizes."
© Agence France-Presse