US says Moscow jailing of Russian activist 'regrettable'

8th September 2010, Comments 0 comments

A top US diplomat on Wednesday expressed regret at the jailing of a prominent Russian right activist that forced the campaigner to miss a key meeting with visiting US officials.

William Burns, the US under secretary of state for political affairs, in an interview with Russian news agency Interfax, called it "regrettable" that he was unable to meet Lev Ponomaryov, who is serving a four-day jail sentence.

"I should note that it is regrettable that Lev Ponomaryov, who was supposed to be at the meeting, was not able to attend," Burns told Interfax.

Ponomaryov, 69, was found guilty by a Moscow court on Tuesday of refusing to obey police orders during an opposition-organised August 12 protest against Moscow's mayor and his handling of a recent heatwave.

"The freedom of assembly is very important to the United States and very important to any democratic society," Burns added.

Ponomaryov, who heads the For Human Rights organisation, was due to meet Burns and US President Barack Obama's Russian affairs advisor Michael McFaul on Wednesday, along with other human rights activists.

"I was invited to a working breakfast with Michael McFaul. The meeting will take place, but not with me," he told Interfax by telephone from the police van taking him to jail.

McFaul, Burns and US Ambassador to Russia John Beyrle held a breakfast meeting with seven Russian rights activists, but no Russian officials, Svetlana Gannushkina of rights group Memorial, told AFP.

"Of course, talks should be four-sided, with officials and civil society representatives from both Russia and the US," Gannushkina said.

Those present included veteran campaigner Lyudmila Alexeya and Sergei Kanayev, the leader of a popular drivers' campaign against officials who flout traffic rules, Gannushkina said.

Kremlin ideologue Vladislav Surkov, who in a controversial appointment heads a Russia-US joint council on civil society, did not attend the meeting, Sakharov museum director Sergei Lukashevsky told AFP.

"While it is good that we are holding talks, which expresses respect for Russian civil society, each time it is a sad sign that dialogue between Russian civil society and the Russian authorities is very weak," Lukashevsky said.

The activists discussed the prison death of a young lawyer last year that provoked an outcry over jail conditions, Lukashevsky told AFP.

They also talked about Russia's crackdown on opposition protests held on the 31st day of the month to protest against violations of the right to freedom of assembly enshrined in the country's constitution.

The latest unsanctioned protest in central Moscow was roughly broken up by riot police on August 31 and at least 70 activists were detained.

The US state department later raised "concern" over the crackdown to the Russian government.

© 2010 AFP

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