Facebook says it blocked the social-media accounts of Ramzan Kadyrov because the Kremlin-backed Chechen leader had become subject to financial and travel sanctions imposed by the U.S. government.
The company said in a statement Thursday it had the "legal obligation" to disable Kadyrov’s accounts on Facebook and Instagram, which it also owns, after the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) on December 20 hit the Chechen leader with sanctions.
"We became aware and have now confirmed that the accounts appear to be maintained by or on behalf of parties who appear on the U.S. Specially Designated Nationals List and, thus, subject to U.S. trade sanctions," the statement said.
"For this reason, Facebook has a legal obligation to disable these accounts," it added.
It was not immediately clear if the social-media network was in the process of disabling accounts of others on the sanction lists.
Facebook declined requests from RFE/RL for further information.
The Treasury’s announcement of the sanctions against Kadyrov are part of ongoing U.S. efforts to punish alleged human rights abusers in connection with the Magnitsky Act. In the announcement, the Treasury Department accused the former rebel fighter who later joined forces with Moscow of "gross violations of internationally recognized human rights," torture, and "extrajudicial killings."
Kadyrov, who has denied the allegations, is one of the most prominent Russian officials to be added to the sanctions list under the Magnitsky Act.
The law enraged Russian officials, who retaliated in 2013 with a sweeping ban on U.S. citizens adopting Russian children.
Reaction by Kadyrov
Kadyrov reacted with anger to Facebook’s move, accusing the U.S.-headquartered social-media network of bowing to pressure from Washington by blocking his pages, a move he said he discovered on December 23.
He said he received no response from Instagram after sending a request for service support because his Russian-language accounts stopped working. His English-language Instagram account was unaffected at first, but later it was also unavailable.
Russia’s telecommunications supervisory authority, Roskomnadzor, demanded an explanation from Facebook and Instagram for the disabling of Kadyrov’s accounts.
"On December 26, Roskomnadzor sent a request to Facebook management, asking to clarify reasons for blocking Ramzan Kadyrov's Facebook and Instagram accounts," Roskomnadzor’s press service said in a statement.
Kadyrov had more than 3 million followers on his Russian-language Instagram account and more than 750,000 on Facebook.
One of his last Instagram postings before the page went down was a video recording in which he responded to the fresh U.S. sanctions by saying he had no current reason to travel to the United States.
"I can be proud that I'm out of favor with the special services of the USA," he wrote. "In fact, the USA cannot forgive me for dedicating my whole life to the fight against foreign terrorists among which there are bastards of America's special services."
Human rights groups say Kadyrov has used threats and abuses to maintain control over Chechnya, the site of two post-Soviet separatist wars and years of insurgent violence stemming from the conflicts since Russian President Vladimir Putin appointed him to head the region in 2007.
The U.S. sanctions law is named after Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who was arrested after blowing the whistle on what he said was the theft of $230 million from Russian state coffers through tax fraud.
He died in jail in December 2009, reportedly after physical abuse and denial of medical care. A Council of Europe investigation concluded the conditions leading up to his death amounted to torture.
Facebook and other social-media networks have come under pressure from U.S. lawmakers over what they have called a failure to prevent alleged abuses of their networks by Russian operatives during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.
U.S. lawmakers in November released a batch of Facebook ads they said were purchased by the company in a surreptitious effort to stir up emotions on sensitive social issues like gun control, race relations, immigration and religion.
Facebook responded saying it is creating a portal enabling users to learn whether they liked or followed pages or accounts linked to a shadowy Russian company that U.S. officials accuse of trying to influence the election with the socially divisive posts.