Speaking at his annual news conference on Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin sharply rebuked the American government, saying that U.S. officials had no right to lecture Russia about human rights and democracy. “They are up to their necks in a certain substance themselves,” Putin said of the Americans, returning to the subject over and over again during his lengthy press conference.
Putin defended his stance against military intervention in Syria and criticized the U.S.’s role in helping to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. But for all his anti-American invective, Putin was evasive about whether he would definitively back legislation passed by the Russian parliament that would prohibit American citizens from adopting Russian children. After being repeatedly questioned by journalists about the bill, Putin said he would have to read the text, reportedly adding that most Americans looking to adopt Russian children are “honest” and “decent.”
The legislation will become law if Putin signs it. It was passed in Russia in response to the Magnitsky Act, a bill that U.S. President Barack Obama signed last week, which imposes financial and travel restrictions on Russian human-rights abusers.
The American bill was named after Sergei Magnitsky, a young lawyer in Moscow who discovered what appeared to be a massive tax-fraud scheme. He told the police, but instead of investigating his allegations, the police—allegedly in cahoots with the officials accused of the fraud—imprisoned the lawyer and tortured him. Magnitsky died in police custody of untreated pancreatitis and heart problems.
In response to questions about the Russian adoption law, Putin condemned what he called the American government’s specious concerns with human rights, inviting reporters to take a closer look at the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq and what he called the “medieval” conditions at the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay. Calling the Magnitsky Act “very bad,” and humiliating, Putin said the bill has poisoned Russian-American relations. “They are trying to stay in the past,” he said in reference to U.S. officials.
During the question and answers section, Sergei Loiko, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, compared Magnitsky’s death to the worst of crimes committed during the reign of Soviet strongman Joseph Stalin. “Why does 1937 keeps returning to us?” he asked.
Tall and broad-shouldered, the reporter stared at Putin. For a moment the audience seemed to freeze, as Russians aren’t accustomed to seeing somebody talk to the president in such a bold manner. A few people applauded. “What the applauding for? Oh, you liked the question,” Putin said with a smirk. “I understand that you work at the Los Angeles Times newspaper and not at Pravda or Izvestia, and you have to take a certain position.”
Putin was equally stone-faced to other reporters. “Your popularity has fallen down to 34 percent, what have you been doing wrong?” asked Yekaterina Vinokurova, a reporter for Gazeta.ru, an online Russian publication.
The president did not admit to any mistakes.