MOSCOW U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met Russian human rights activists on Wednesday but disappointed many by avoiding any harsh criticism of the Kremlin's record on civil liberties and democracy.
A day after talks in Moscow at which he and Russian officials agreed to try to bring Syria's warring parties together to discuss ending a civil war, Kerry discussed with human rights campaigners what they say is a clampdown on dissent by President Vladimir Putin.
"I just met with a group of your civil society folks who are struggling to find their voice in their own country, who courageously stand up and fight for what we take for granted, in many cases, in America," he said.
It was not the response hoped for by some of the activists, who say Putin has used Soviet-style repression to tighten his grip on power since returning to the presidency a year ago.
"We spoke to him. He listened, he's hopeful. What else can you say?" said 85-year old Lyudmila Alexeyeva, who has challenged the authorities over human rights since the start of the Soviet dissident movement in the 1960s.
"I remember the times of (Soviet dictator Josef) Stalin very well. I should say our current leaders are returning to those times by putting pressure on any sign of civil activity ... We don't know when the pressure will end," said Alexeyeva, who now heads the Moscow Helsinki Group.
LAWS AIMED AT STIFLING DISSENT
Critics say new laws, including a broadening of the definition of treason and increased fines for unsanctioned protests, is aimed at stifling dissent and ending a protest movement that rose in 2011 against Putin's 13-year-rule.
Washington has regularly criticized the Kremlin in recent months over its record on human rights and democracy, and wants a new law that forces non-governmental organizations funded from abroad to register as "foreign agents" to be rescinded.
But Kerry concentrated more on securing progress towards a political solution in Syria during his two-day visit before heading for Rome.
Another human rights campaigner, Lev Ponomaryov, said the lack of public criticism during his trip reflected the fact that Russia and the United States are trying to cooperate on issues including Syria after a period of strains in relations.
"Russia is now an ally of the United States and what is more important to the two of them are large geopolitical problems," he said.
Washington and Moscow have often disagreed over how to handle the more than two-year-old conflict in Syria and their agreement to try to bring the warring sides together for talks was considered a diplomatic victory by both.
Ponomaryov said he was, however, encouraged by passage of legislation widely known as the Magnitsky Act, which bars Russians accused of human rights violations from entering the United States or holding assets there.
It is named after a whistle-blowing lawyer who died in detention in 2009 while awaiting trial on charges of tax evasion - the same accusation he had made against state officials.
Putin has said Magnitsky died of a heart attack, but his own human rights council has said he was probably beaten to death.
The U.S. State Department's latest human rights report for 2012 noted a number of problems including "a series of measures limiting political pluralism" in Russia.
The report also said there was a denial of due process in detention and trials of protesters arrested at a protest that turned violent on the eve of Putin's inauguration last year.
The Kremlin has denied carrying out a crackdown on opponents and says it does not use the courts for political ends.
(Reporting by Thomas Grove; Editing by Michael Roddy)