By Steve Gutterman
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia warned the United States on Thursday to expect a tough response if Congress passes "unfriendly and provocative" legislation designed to punish Russian officials for human rights violations.
The Foreign Ministry said U.S.-Russian ties were sure to suffer if lawmakers back a move directing the U.S. government to deny visas to Russian officials involved in the detention, abuse or death of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who died in jail in 2009.
"Such a step will unavoidably have a negative effect on the whole range of Russian-U.S. relations," Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich told a news briefing.
"We will certainly not leave the introduction of essentially anti-Russian visa and financial sanctions without consequences," he said. "We will have to react, and react toughly, depending on the final version of this unfriendly provocative act."
It did not specify how Russia would react to passage of what has become known as the Magnitsky bill, under which any Russian officials accused of involvement in the case would have any assets they hold in U.S. banks frozen.
Magnitsky has posthumously become a symbol of corruption and abuse of Russians who challenge the authorities. Adoption of the bill could undermine efforts to smooth relations at the start of President Barack Obama's new term.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has welcomed Obama's re-election and said he wants to improve ties and increase trade, but has made clear he will not tolerate criticism from the United States about human rights.
Lukashevich used tough language to condemn the state of human rights in the United States.
"Considering very crude violations of human rights in the United States itself, including the practical legalization of torture and the indefinite holding of inmates without trial in special CIA prisons and at the Gauntanamo base (in Cuba), the United States has no moral right to preach or moralize to other countries," he said.
The United States must establish "permanent normal trade relations" (PNTR) with Russia if it wants to ensure U.S. companies receive all the market-opening benefits of Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization in August.
Russia joined the WTO after 18 years of negotiations with strong support from the Obama administration, whose push to bring Russia into the global trade rules body was part of the U.S. president's first-term "reset" of relations with Moscow.
Establishing PNTR requires lawmakers to lift a Cold War-era provision, the Jackson-Vanik amendment, that tied favorable U.S. tariffs on Russian goods to the rights of Soviet Jews.
LINKING TRADE AND HUMAN RIGHTS
The amendment is outdated, but U.S. lawmakers are reluctant to remove it without passing legislation to keep pressure on Moscow over their human rights concerns, which have deepened since Putin returned to the presidency in May.
The U.S. House of Representatives was expected to vote on Friday on a package that would combine the PNTR bill with the Magnitsky legislation.
"Today's commentary is being made in order to show the American lawmakers that the movement should be in the exact opposite direction," Lukashevich said.
He said Russian-U.S. relations were moving in a positive direction but added: "This positive could very easily evaporate, unfortunately."
Russian officials have indicated Moscow might respond in kind by barring entry to Americans deemed to have violated human rights. Other moves cannot be ruled out.
Magnitsky was jailed in 2008 on suspicion of tax evasion and fraud, charges colleagues say were fabricated by police investigators he had accused of stealing $230 million from the state through fraudulent tax refunds. The Kremlin's own human rights council has said he was probably beaten to death.
Obama's administration says it understands concerns over rights abuses but that the bill, being pushed by lawmakers, is redundant because Washington has already imposed visa restrictions on some Russians thought to have been involved in Magnitsky's death. It has not disclosed their names.
(Additional reporting by Nastassia Astrasheuskaya; editing by Timothy Heritage and Keiron Henderson)