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Legal tensions

Markian Ostaptschuk / gdDecember 28, 2012

A new law blocks Americans from adopting Russian children. Human right activists consider the ban to be an inappropriate reaction to US sanctions on Russian officials accused of committing human right violations.

Children in a Russian daycare REUTERS/Vladimir Konstantinov
Image: Reuters

Despite international criticism, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law on Friday (28.12.2012) that bans Americans from adopting Russian children. Both houses of the Russian Parliament had previously passed the bill with an overwhelming majority. The bill has unofficially been dubbed the Dima Yakovlev law, named after a Russian-born toddler who died of heat stroke after his American adoptive father left him locked in a sweltering car. But the adoption ban was also a reaction to a US law by the name of the Magnitsky Act that seeks to sanction Russian officials suspected of involvement in human rights violations.

A woman holding a picture in her hands of the deceased Russian anti-corruption lawyer Sergei. (Photo: AP)
Deceased Russian anti-corruption lawyer Sergei MagnitskyImage: AP

The Russian anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who worked for the US investment company Hermitage Capital and had exposed a corruption scandal within the Russian interior ministry, was imprisoned in 2008 on tax evasion charges. The 37-year-old died a year later in a prison in Moscow after allegedly being denied assistance following physical abuse.

A Russian court in Moscow acquitted on Friday (28.12.2012) Dmitry Kratov, a former deputy head of Butyrka prison, where Magnitsky was held before his death. The court ruling said that Kratov was not guilty of neglect and that there was no connection between Kratov's actions and the death of Magnitsky. US officials, however, accuse Russia of committing severe human rights violations.

Activists approve of US sanctions

Lyudmila Alexeyeva, director of the Moscow Helsinki Group, supports the US stance on the Magnitsky case. The US sanctions which block bank accounts belonging to certain Russian officials and bar their entry into the country "are appropriate measures. They correspond to the present-day human rights situation in Russia," Alexeyeva said in an interview with DW.

The 85-year-old human rights activist believes that those on the US list are guilty of violating the rights of Russian citizens and stealing from the national budget and, therefore, should be punished.

Human rights watchdog and Moscow Helsinki group chairperson Lyudmila Alekseyeva walks during a Congress of the Union of Right Forces in Moscow on Friday, Sept. 21, 2007. (Photo:AP)
Human rights activist Alexeyeva considers the US sanctions on Russian officials to be "appropriate"Image: AP

The head of the Russian non-governmental organization Rights of the Child, Boris Altshuler, approves of the US sanctions imposed on Russian state representatives.

"The Magnitsky Act actually defends Russian citizens from corrupt officials who abuse human rights," Altshuler said to DW, adding that the Russian adoption ban punishes Russian orphans and holds them hostage to political maneuvering. Altshuler believes the adoption ban to be "a completely inappropriate reaction" to the Magnitsky Act.

Alexey Malashenko, from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the laws are having a negative impact on Russian-American ties.

"The State Duma has discredited itself. How are the Americans now supposed to deal with these state officials?," said Malaschenko, while noting that nobody was interested in a deterioration of the bilateral relations.

"Putin understands this. That is why I think there will be some sort of compromise," the expert said.

UNICEF appeals to the Kremlin

In contrast to human right activists, the Russian Children's Rights Commissioner, Pavel Astakhov, believes the adoption ban to be "a justified response" to the Magnitsky Act. "Every hostile act by one state must bring about a response by the state that finds itself in the position of the victim," Astakhov said. According to the commissioner, families from countries that have no corresponding treaty with Russia will be banned from adopting Russian children. At the moment, such treaties are only in place with France and Italy.

Russian Children's Rights Commissioner Pavel Astakhov. (Photo: DW)
Russian Children's Rights Commissioner Pavel AstakhovImage: DW

In the meantime, the United Nations' Children's Fund (UNICEF) called on the Russian government to continue allowing adoptions from abroad. The current plight of the many children in Russian institutions must receive immediate attention, said UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake. He also encouraged Moscow to establish a national social protection plan to help strengthen Russian families. "Alternatives to the institutionalization of children are essential, including permanent foster care, domestic adoption and inter-country adoption," Lake said.

More than 60,000 Russian orphans have been adopted in the US, according to the National Council for Adoption, an American advocacy group. Russian Children's Rights Commissioner Astakhov insists, however, that the number could be as high as 100,000. The discrepancy could be due to the Russian government's virtual absence of adoption records before 1996.