MOSCOW — Russia’s parliament took a first step Wednesday toward banning the adoption of Russian children by American parents, a move intended as retaliation for an anti-corruption law recently passed by Congress.
The State Duma, the lower house of parliament, voted 399 to 17 in favor of a bill that included the ban and also would annul an adoption agreement between the two countries that Russia ratified in July. The measure still has to be approved by the upper house and signed by President Vladimir Putin, who has sent mixed signals about his support.
The Dima Yakovlev law is named after a Russian boy who died of heatstroke in 2008 after being left in a parked car by his adoptive American father. If approved, the legislation would cut off adoptions as of Jan. 1.
American parents have adopted more than 60,000 Russian children over the last two decades. Americans adopt 1,000 to 3,000 Russian children a year, said Boris Altshuler, who heads Right of the Child, a Moscow-based advocacy group. Russian families adopt about 7,000 children a year, far from enough to meet the country’s needs.
The ban is intended to punish the United States for the so-called Magnitsky law, passed by Congress this month and named for Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer and whistle-blower who died in pretrial custody in Moscow in 2009. The Magnitsky law imposed visa restrictions on a group of Russian officials connected to the lawyer’s prosecution and death.
Calling the Magnitsky law unfriendly and provocative, Russian legislators initially retaliated with a bill that included visa bans on an unspecified number of U.S. officials as well as on American parents who mistreat adopted Russian children and judges who are deemed lenient with such parents. The State Duma later added the adoption restrictions, accusing U.S. parents of mistreating and killing adopted Russian children and blaming unspecified middlemen of turning adoption into a corrupt and lucrative business.
“More than 80% of Russian children [adopted abroad] are adopted by the United States, and it is no secret for anyone in Russia today that this is a dirty business,” Svetlana Goryacheva, a lawmaker with the Just Russia party, told reporters after the vote. “So today we in Russia are notorious for selling our children, and it is high time to stop it.”
Ilya Ponomaryov, the only Duma member to speak out against the adoption ban, said there are 1,500 Russian children, including 49 with serious disabilities, whose adoptions by U.S. parents are awaiting approval in Russian courts.
“Today the State Duma for all practical purposes issued a grave verdict for these seriously sick children, who, I am sure, will languish in Russian orphanages for the rest of their lives without proper love and care,” Ponomaryov said in an interview after the vote. “Their last chance is Putin’s veto.”
Putin warned lawmakers last week against “an excessive response” to the Magnitsky law, but gave his blessing to Wednesday’s vote, according to his press secretary, Dmitry Peskov.
In an interview with the Russia-24 television network, Peskov called the U.S. law “an unfriendly act” and said the president understands the Russian lawmakers’ tough stance.
The measure faces opposition from human rights groups and some Russian officials, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the Kremlin’s human rights envoy, Vladimir Lukin.
Besides adding the adoption ban, the measure was amended to suspend the activities of Russian nongovernmental organizations funded by the United States.
Rachel Denber, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch, denounced both amendments. The U.S. law is designed to protect Russian citizens from corrupt officials, she said, so a symmetrical Russian response would be a measure aimed at corrupt American officials.
“Instead the Russian lawmakers decided to hit where it hurts more,” she said in an interview. “They hit U.S. people who want to adopt Russian children and they hit U.S. organizations and activists who want to promote democracy in Russia.”
“I am having a hard time believing that the prohibition of the adoption of Russian children by U.S. families can be in the best interests of Russian orphans,” she added.
In the last 15 years, 19 adopted Russian children have died in accidents in the United States, while more than 1,200 adopted children have died in Russian families during the same period, according to Altshuler of Right of the Child.
“Our lawmakers thus sacrifice thousands of Russian orphans by locking them up in institutions instead of letting them have a chance to be adopted in the United States and have a real future,” he added.
Altshuler said nearly 300,000 Russian children are in orphanages, about two-thirds of whom have parents who can’t or won’t support them. He called the situation critical and said that adoptions by Russian families aren’t sufficient to resolve it.
Earlier Wednesday, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev urged Russians to adopt more children.
“Foreign adoption stems from the weak attention of the state and the society toward orphans,” Medvedev said at a gathering of the ruling United Russia party.