Geopolitics

Russia-U.S. Relations Grow Colder With Tit-For-Tat Over Banned Officials Lists

A strong blow to bilateral relations
A strong blow to bilateral relations
Dmitri Tikhonov, Maria Efimova, Sergei Strokan, Genadii Sisoev, Elena Chernenko

MOSCOW - On Friday, the United States made public its list of Russian officials who are barred to enter the U.S. under the Magnitsky Act.

The law imposes visa and banking sanctions on Russians officials accused of human rights violations. It is named after Sergei Magnitsky, a corruption lawyer and whistleblower who was accused of tax evasion and died in prison in 2009, after being beaten and denied medical treatment.

There are 18 names on the final American list, far less than had originally been suspected by Russia. Four of the 18 officials are high-ranking officials; the other 14 are prosecutors and special operations officers. The majority of the people on the list were implicated in the arrest and death of Sergei Magnitsky.

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs called the list “absurd”, saying it delivered “a strong blow to bilateral relations.”

Even before the list was published, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had said that no matter what the contents of the list were, the simple act of publishing the list would be bad for Russian-American relations.

“We, of course, didn’t let this happen without an answer, and we reacted to this interference in our internal affairs in the appropriate way,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared on Saturday. “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation’s website has been updated today to include a list of Americans who are forbidden from entering Russian territory.”

“Blatant blackmail”

The Ministry explained that “unlike the American list, which is formed arbitrarily, our list primarily includes those who are implicated in legalization of torture and perpetual detentions in Guantanamo prison, to the arrests and kidnapping of Russian citizens.”

The Ministry continued, “the war of lists is not our choice, but we cannot ignore such blatant blackmail. It is time for politicians in Washington to finally understand that there are no prospects in building relations with a country like Russia with the spirit of mentoring and undisguised dictating.”

Several members of the U.S. Congress had lobbied for as many as 280 names to be included on the list of Russians barred from the U.S., and both the CIA and human rights organizations had lobbied for a maximum number of people to be sanctioned. Before the list was published, sources in the Congress had said that President Obama was likely to shy away from such an expansive list for fear of worsening his relationship with the Kremlin.

The list of Americans banned from entering Russia also has 18 names, and includes federal prosecutors, commanders at Guantanamo and several special agents. The Russians had actually been considering 104 names in case the American list was as far-reaching as some feared.

The U.S. government has promised that its own list was not a final one, and that it would be continually updated. The White House also confirmed the existence of a second classified list of Russian officials subject to visa bans only. The names on that list were not made public, but it is already known that, among others, several members of the Russian Parliament are on it, as well as Kremlin-backed Chechen leader Ramzan Kadirov, who is accused of human rights violations, abductions and killings.

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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