Washington hits senior Russian officials with fresh sanctions over the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

The US has announced punitive sanctions against Russia, particularly aimed at hitting some of the country's top officials as well as imports related to software and technology. 

The move comes days after US president Joe Biden called his Russian counterpart Vladmir Putin a "killer".

“The department is committed to preventing Russia from accessing sensitive US technologies that might be diverted to its malign chemical weapons activities,” said the United States Commerce Department in a statement on Wednesday.

Although Moscow denies any involvement in using a military-grade nerve agent in 2018 to poison  three high-profile Russians — Navalny, and then on British soil, former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter — the US Commerce Department said it would still go ahead and tighten the sanctions against the country.

As per the statement, the department also suspended the export of servicing and replacement parts and equipment that had been exported to Russia.

In a recent interview with ABC News, President Biden said that he agrees with the assessment that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a “killer”. 

European scientists and global chemical weapons watchdog previously held Moscow directly responsible for Navalny's poisoning. As per their investigation,  a new variant named Novichok was used against Navalny in August 2020. 

Russia has denied its involvement in the case and cast doubts on whether Navalny - who is serving two and a half years in jail after returning to Russia from recovery in Germany in January - was poisoned at all.

Following the emerging details on the Navalny case on 23 December 2020, Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas announced that Moscow was behind the poisoning.

Going a step further, the German foreign minister talking to German Press Agency (DPA)  last December, also said that the reports which claimed Navalny had been poisoned with the chemical nerve agent Novichok are "neither new nor surprising."

"The fact that this has now been reappraised and corroborated by journalistic research is a confirmation for us," Maas added. 

Speaking of the sanctions imposed by the EU against those it holds responsible for Navalny's poisoning, he added that he did not expect the reports to prompt further consequences.

What happened and who is Alexei Navalny

Navalny is an outspoken critic  of Russian President Vladmir Putin and he runs the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK). According to its mission statement, the foundation is “the only Russian NGO that leads public campaigns to fight corruption, protect civil rights and monitor the actions of authorities”.

Russian authorities have tried to deal with Navalny before. He once faced trial on embezzlement charges in a timber case, accused of committing a crime that was, as the New Yorker described it, “both impossible and absurd”.

As a result of the trial, Navalny was convicted in July 2013 and sentenced to five years in prison, yet his conviction ushered in a great protest in Moscow which thousands attended, despite the risk of facing fines or arrest themselves. Navalny was released the next day.

The key opposition figure also ran for mayor of Moscow in the September 2013 election, coming second in a race of six candidates.

In November 2013, Navalny and his brother Oleg were accused of committing fraud in connection with a shipping company Navalny had helped set up for his sibling. After a year of house arrest, Navalny was sentenced to further detention at home while Oleg was sent to jail. 

Navalny was trailed by prison authority officers until, a month later, they stopped. He interpreted the move to the New Yorker, stating: “It’s obvious that Putin personally makes decisions about my fate. As he does with many things, Putin personally makes a lot of the decisions in the country.”

“So the number of people standing in line to get a decision from Putin is so large that the person in that line holding a folder with the name Navalny on it has to wait a very long time,” Navalny added.

This was not the only time Navalny had a brush with the authorities. According to the human rights group Amnesty International, he was “previously jailed for 15 days in March 2017, 30 days in June 2017, 20 days in October 2017, 15 days in May 2018 and 30 days in August 2018 for his role in organising mass protests across the country”.

In May 2017, an attacker threw a green chemical in his face, resulting in an 80 percent loss of his sight in one eye, the New York Times reported. Navalny wrote in his blog that while his eyesight might yet recover, he was banned from seeking treatment overseas by Moscow, which refused to issue him a passport.

Navalny was detained by police in the outskirts of Moscow in January, moments after his return to the country from Germany five months after he was poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok.

In February,  a court in Moscow jailed him for three-and-a-half years for violating the conditions of a suspended sentence.

Source: TRT World