By Thomas Grove
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia accused the United States on Monday of double standards on human rights, criticizing its failure to close Guantanamo Bay prison and its use of the death penalty while the U.S. Congress considers a law which could punish Moscow for alleged abuses.
Russia and the United States attempted to "reset" their relations when President Barack Obama entered the White House in 2009, but ties have turned decidedly cooler since Vladimir Putin declared last year he planned to return to the presidency.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has declared that Russia is Washington's number one geopolitical foe, while Moscow has chafed under recent U.S. allegations that it harbors human rights abusers.
Now two weeks before the U.S. presidential election, the State Duma lower parliament house held a three-hour hearing criticizing its former Cold War foe.
"The U.S. claim on the role of absolute leader in the sphere of human rights is unsustainable and is not confirmed by practical realities," Itar-Tass quoted the Foreign Ministry's human rights envoy Konstantin Dolgov as saying to lawmakers.
The Duma hearing took the form of a presentation by the Foreign Ministry recommending actions by the lawmakers.
Russia also said the United States used human rights as a pretext for meddling in the affairs of sovereign states around the world, in a veiled jibe at Washington's handling of an uprising in Libya.
"(Russian authorities) must defend against policies being carried out by the United States directed at using the concept of rights as an instrument of pressure and as a basis for intervention in the internal affairs of sovereign governments," the Foreign Ministry presentation read.
That echoed a foreign policy decree Putin signed the day he was inaugurated in May, which said Moscow would seek closer ties with the United States but would not tolerate interference in its affairs and would "counter attempts to use human rights ... as an instrument of political pressure".
In power since 2000, Putin has frequently accused the United States of meddling in the affairs of Russia and other nations.
Congress is considering a bill that would require the U.S. government to impose sanctions on people believed responsible for the death of Sergei Magnitsky, an anti-corruption lawyer who died in a Moscow jail in 2009, and other human rights violators.
Romney and some lawmakers have demanded the bill be adopted if the United States upgrades trade relations with Moscow, after Russia joined the World Trade Organization in August.
In a sign of deteriorating ties earlier this month, Russia said it would not renew a decades-old agreement with Washington aimed at dismantling nuclear and chemical weapons. Washington said the two sides were still talking over its extension.
Russia has accused the United States of trying to sway Russian elections and meddle in its domestic affairs through its U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and it ordered the agency's Russian operations shut down this month.
Kremlin critics said the move was intended to cut funding to organizations Putin sees as a threat following his return as president after four years as prime minister, and called it part of a crackdown on dissent.
(Reporting by Thomas Grove; Editing by Jon Hemming)
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