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Russia plays down critical U.S. human rights report

MOSCOW, Feb 26 (Reuters) - Moscow, keen to improve ties with Washington under new President Barack Obama, reacted calmly on Thursday to a U.S. report accusing Russia of infringements of democratic freedoms.

Russia’s relations with the United States, already soured by NATO’s eastward expansion and U.S. plans to deploy a missile shield in eastern Europe, sank to a post-Soviet low in August over the war in Georgia.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Obama are widely expected to seek closer cooperation than their predecessors Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush.

The U.S. State Department issued a strongly worded annual report on human rights on Wednesday, saying civil liberties “continued to be under siege, reflecting an erosion of the government’s accountability to its citizens”.

Moscow, which expects Medvedev and Obama to hold their first meeting in London in early April, did its best to play down the the report, which deals mainly with events during the Bush presidency.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a news conference he had not seen the report, before adding:

“I know that the Department of State each year publishes a report on human rights in various countries, in which it traditionally expresses this or that portion of criticism, including some aimed at the Russian Federation.”

Lavrov said Russia is “ready to discuss any concerns of our partners, but the main thing is that such discussions should be based on facts and their unbiased perception”.

The U.S. report said the conflict between Russia and Georgia last August had led to civilian casualties and the indiscriminate use of force, while government pressure had led to an increase in assaults on journalists.

It also mentioned Russia’s failure to solve the 2006 murder of independent journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was critical of the Kremlin.

“We have problems in this sphere (human rights), but we honestly talk about them and, what’s more, we ourselves publish annual reports on the state of things there,” Lavrov said. “We believe all other countries ought to apply the same approach.”

Russia has its own human rights ombudsman who publishes a detailed annual report. It acknowledges some serious human rights violations, but very rarely cites specific abuses, instead listing legal clauses dealing with human rights and advising citizens how to complain to the authorities.

Russia reacted scornfully to criticisms in last year’s U.S. State Department human rights report, calling it an “opus” that showed Washington’s “double standards”. (Reporting by Dmitry Solovyov; editing by Philippa Fletcher)