President signs bill preventing Americans from adopting Russian children in move Washington says is 'politically motivated'

The US government has condemned as "politically motivated" a decision by the Kremlin to ban Americans from adopting Russian children, warning of a further wedge in relations with Moscow.

President Vladimir Putin signed the controversial bill – with the immediate effect of preventing 52 children from joining pre-assigned parents in the US – on Friday. It marked the latest exchange over US legislation relating to the case of corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.

Magnitsky died in a Russian prison in 2009 after being arrested by the same officers he was investigating over a $230m fraud. Outcry in the US led to a ban on all officials implicated in the case from travelling to, or holding bank accounts in, the US.

In a statement on Friday, the State Department criticised the signing of the bill by Putin. "The Russian government's politically motivated decision will reduce adoption possibilities for children who are now under institutional care," it said.

It noted that more than 60,000 Russian children had been adopted by Americans in the last 20 years. "The vast majority of these children are now thriving thanks to their parents' loving support," said the statement.

The US response put special emphasis on the plight of dozens of babies and children who were already preparing for a new life with American families.

"We are further concerned about statements that adoptions already under way may be stopped, and hope that the Russian government would allow those children who have already met and bonded with their future parents to finish the necessary legal procedures so that they can join their families."

But Russian officials have attempted to garner support for the US adoption ban by highlighting isolated incidents of abuse, and the cases of 19 children who have died in US care.

The act signed by Putin on Friday is named after Dima Yakovlev, a 21-month-old boy who died in a sweltering car in Virginia. His adoptive father was later acquitted of involuntary manslaughter, prompting strong media criticism in Russia.

Putin has masked the new rules on adoption with calls for patriotism, stating that Russia should care for its own citizens. But inside Russia the bill has been criticised by opposition figures as "cannibalistic", with a petition against the act being signed by more than 100,000 people.

In a bid to temper the internal criticism, Putin also signed a decree ordering a shake-up and improvement of Russia's care for orphans.

But it was accompanied by further denunciations of US action by senior Kremlin officials. A spokesman for the president blamed the Magnitsky Act for "seriously undermining" attempts to rebuild relations between the former cold war enemies.

In its official response to the latest move from Moscow, Washington warned that it would affect areas away from adoption work.

"[It] will also make it more difficult for Russian and American non-governmental organisations to cooperate in areas as diverse as human rights advocacy, open government, and electoral transparency.

"The United States remains committed to supporting the development of civil society and the democratic process around the world, including in Russia," it added.

In a move that has led to further questions being raised over Russia's handling of the case, the only person to be charged over the lawyer's death was acquitted on Friday.

Dmitry Kratov, a doctor at the prison in which Magnitsky died after being left untreated for pancreatitis, had previously pleaded not guilty to negligence, stating that he did not have adequate staff to ensure Magnitsky's medical care.

© Guardian News and Media 2012