December 21, 2012 / 10:54 AM / 5 years ago

Russian lawmakers back adoption ban in dispute with US

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia’s lower house of parliament approved on Friday a proposed law banning Americans from adopting Russian children, in retaliation for U.S. human rights legislation which Vladimir Putin says is poisoning relations.

A general view shows the Russian State Duma headquarters, the lower house of parliament, in Moscow January 30, 2010. REUTERS/Alexander Natruskin

The State Duma overwhelmingly backed a bill which also would outlaw U.S.-funded “non-profit organizations that engage in political activity”, extending what critics say is a clampdown on Putin’s opponents since he returned to the presidency in May.

The measure responds to a new U.S. law known as the Magnitsky Act, passed by the U.S. Congress to impose visa bans and asset freezes on Russian officials accused of involvement in the death in custody of anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in 2009.

Washington’s ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, said the Russian bill unfairly “linked the fate of orphaned children to unrelated political issues,” while the U.S. State Department rejected any parallels with the Magnitsky Act.

Putin hinted at a news conference on Thursday that he would sign it into law once the Senate votes on it next week, describing it as an emotional but appropriate response to an unfriendly move by the United States.

“It is a myth that all children who land in American families are happy and surrounded by love,” Olga Batalina, a deputy with Putin’s ruling United Russia party, said in defense of the new measures.

In a pointed echo of the Magnitsky Act, the Russian legislation has become known as the Dima Yakovlev law, after a Russian-born toddler who died after his American adoptive father left him locked in a sweltering car.

The law has outraged Russian liberals who say children are being made victims of politics. Some government officials, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, have expressed reservations about the legislation.

“Children should not be a bargaining chip in international affairs,” said Mikhail Fedotov, the head of the Kremlin’s human rights council.

Speaking in Washington, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said the United States is ready to work with Russia on any concerns over adoptions, but rejected any comparisons between the Magnitsky Act and the Russian legislation.

“It’s hard to imagine a reciprocal situation,” Ventrell said. “It’s Russian children who will be harmed by this measure.”

Last year, 962 Russian children from orphanages were adopted by Americans. More than 45,000 have found homes in the United States since the 1991 Soviet collapse. Their parents are either dead or unable to care for them and some have complex medical needs.

The spat is overshadowing efforts to improve relations with U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration.

Signaling Moscow is worried about long-term damage to trade and diplomatic ties, Lavrov has taken the rare step of appearing to stake out a view that differs from the Kremlin line. The Kremlin hopes Obama will visit Russia for a summit in 2013.

Meanwhile, the United States and Russia formally informed the World Trade Organization in Geneva on Friday that they would apply the WTO agreement between each other.

Russia joined the WTO in August, but the two countries have not had full WTO relations because the U.S. Congress needed to pass a bill first to establish “permanent normal trade relations.” It did that as part of the Magnitsky legislation.

RHETORIC REMINISCENT OF COLD WAR

In a debate peppered with patriotic rhetoric reminiscent of the Cold War, deputies described foreign adoptions as an embarrassment, implying Russia could not care for its own.

The proposal was backed by 420 deputies and opposed by only seven in the 450-seat chamber. It’s easy passage reflected a growing conservatism in society since Putin’s return of the presidency.

The provision targeting non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, has also upset international human rights groups which accuse Putin of clamping down on civil society and dissent in his new six-year term as president following the biggest protests of his 13-year domination of Russian politics.

“There is a huge risk that the vaguely worded provisions in this bill will be used to clamp down on government critics and exposers of abuses,” said John Dalhuisen, Europe and Central Asia Program Director at Amnesty International.

It was fast-tracked and came to the third of three readings in the Duma’s last session before the chamber, which is dominated by Putin’s party, broke up for holidays.

It will go to a vote in the Senate next week but final approval rests with Putin.

Russia is the third most popular country for U.S. foreign adoptions after China and Ethiopia, according to the U.S. State Department, something regretted by Russian politicians.

“We are against our orphans wandering the globe,” United Russia deputy Vladimir Vasilyev said.

Critics say the new move will deprive children stuck in orphanages the chance of growing up in the care of families.

“This has nothing to do with the Magnitsky Act,” Fedotov said. “For us to transition to a refusal of international adoptions, we need for all children to be adopted in Russia. ... This is a long-term goal.”

Some prominent non-governmental organizations will be threatened with closure as the law bans U.S.-sponsored political NGOs from working in Russia. Russians who also hold U.S. passports will be unable to lead such groups.

Russian human rights activists said the latter provision specifically targeted veteran campaigner Lyudmila Alexeyeva, 85, a Soviet-era dissident who leads the Moscow Helsinki Group.

Putin has accused the United States of stoking protest against his nearly 13-year rule and Russia ordered the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to halt its work in the country in October.

Russian officials say they fear foreign powers will use non-profit groups to bring about the type of street protests that toppled governments in Georgia and Ukraine.

Additional reporting by Masha Tsvetkova and Nastassia Astrasheuskaya and Andrew Quinn in Washington; writing by Alissa de Carbonnel; editing by Timothy Heritage and Will Dunham

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