World News

U.S. diplomat raps Russia on jailing, free assembly

MOSCOW (Reuters) - A top U.S. diplomat criticized Russia on Wednesday over the jailing of a prominent human rights activist and urged the Kremlin to respect the right to free assembly.

William Burns, U.S. under secretary of state for political affairs, spoke during a Moscow visit aimed to further improvements in ties with Russia under a “reset” initiated by President Barack Obama early in 2009. The U.S. embassy characterized his talks as good and productive.

But Burns also lent an ear to dissenting voices by meeting rights activists, and expressed regret that one of them -- Lev Ponomaryov, head of the group For Human Rights -- missed the meeting because he was behind bars.

“I should note that it is regrettable that Lev Ponomaryov, who was supposed to be at the meeting was not able to attend,” Burns said in an interview with the Interfax news agency.

“The freedom of assembly is very important to the United States and very important for any democratic society,” he said. The remarks were confirmed by the U.S. Embassy.

Ponomaryov, 68, was sentenced to four days in jail on Tuesday by a court that ruled he took part in an unsanctioned protest against Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov on August 12. He had served a three-day sentence last month over a separate protest.

Rights groups and Kremlin critics have been fighting a losing battle with the authorities over the freedom of assembly.

Activists say they do not need permission to demonstrate and have sought to protest on Moscow’s Triumph Square on every month that has a 31st day, a reference to the freedom of assembly granted in Article 31 of the Russian constitution.

Police have routinely broken up the demonstrations, and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin gave them the green light for such crackdowns in an interview last week, saying people who protest without permission “will be hit on the head with batons.”

On Aug 31 -- the following day -- police broke up a protest on Triumph Square and detained more than 150 demonstrators in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

One way the Obama administration has tried to nurture ties is by toning down the often confrontational rhetoric of the Bush era, but U.S. officials say they continue to raise concerns about human rights and civil freedoms with the Kremlin.

After the Aug 31 protests, the U.S. State Department suggested the Russian government was “shrinking the space for civil society” and said its had concerns about “the intimidation of citizens.”

The U.S. Embassy said Burns’s meetings with officials were aimed to take stock and see how to build on improving ties.

The official said they discussed an array of issues ranging from investment and Russia’s bid to join the World Trade Organization to Iran’s nuclear program, cooperation on Afghanistan and U.S. plans for a missile shield.

They also discussed progress toward ratification by lawmakers in both nations of the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty, whose signing by Obama and Medvedev in April was the largest concrete achievement of the “reset” to date.

Writing by Steve Gutterman; editing by Ralph Boulton