By Thomas Grove
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia on Tuesday criticized a decision by U.S. authorities not to file charges against the adoptive parents of a Russian-born boy whose death in January was seized on in Moscow as justification of a ban on adoptions by Americans.
The death of three-year-old Max Shatto led to criminal and child welfare investigations in the U.S. state of Texas, where he died. Russia has also opened an inquiry and lawmakers in Moscow called for his younger brother to be returned to Russia.
Tensions between the United States and Russia have risen since Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency last May. The adoption ban is part of a law he signed in December to retaliate against U.S. legislation meant to punish Russian rights abusers.
Max Shatto's death added to the poisoned atmosphere. Russia's child rights ombudsman aired suspicions of foul play and lawmakers demanded the return of his brother Kris, who was also adopted by Laura and Alan Shatto, to Russia.
But a U.S. district attorney said on Monday the couple would not face criminal charges over the death of the boy, who is referred to in Russia by his original name, Maxim Kuzmin. Kris Shatto was born Kirill Kuzmin.
"The decision by the authorities of the state of Texas not to press charges against the Shattos in regard to the tragic death of Maxim Kuzmin raises serious questions," Russia's Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
"Unfortunately, the incident falls into the overall trend of leniency of law enforcement officials and courts in the United States ... toward American adoptive parents, through whose fault children from Russia die."
A grand jury determined that there was no evidence the Shattos had committed any crime, Ector County District Attorney Bobby Bland said. The boy's death "was the result of a tragic accident occurring most likely on playground equipment."
A ruling was made by the Ector County Medical Examiner earlier this month that Max's death from a torn artery in his abdomen was not intentional, and that bruises on his body were the result of self-inflicted wounds.
Laura Shatto told investigators she was with the boys as they were playing in the backyard of their home in Gardendale, Texas, on January 17, but found the boy unconscious after she went briefly inside. He died in a nearby hospital.
"It turns out that the child died, but his adoptive parents are not guilty," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in wording that suggested doubt. "Moreover, they try to convince us that the injuries which killed him were inflicted by himself."
The case has been highly publicized in Russian state-owned media, and the biological mother of the boys appeared on television to make an impassioned appeal for the return of Max's younger brother.
Thousands of people from pro-Kremlin parties and other groups marched through Moscow on March 2 in a show of support for the ban on American adoptions, some holding pictures of Max Shatto and calling for his brother's return.
Russian authorities have announced their own inquiry into allegations he was beaten before his death.
The Foreign Ministry said it was counting on getting "unimpeded consular access to the younger brother of Maxim Kuzmin, Kirill, in order to determine the real conditions in which he is living in the Shatto family.
"This is important for the further study of the issue of his return to Russia," it said.
Americans have adopted more than 60,000 Russian since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, more than parents from any other country. Nearly 129,000 Russian children were awaiting adoption in late 2011.
Russian opponents of the adoption ban accuse the government of using vulnerable children as political pawns and say it has decreased children's chances of escape from a state orphanage system critics say is plagued by neglect and instances of abuse.
(Reporting by Thomas Grove; Editing by Steve Gutterman and Jon Hemming)
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