Putin Goes On Offense Against US

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During a four and a half hour question and answer session, the president said Russian MPs had acted “emotionally, but reasonably” in approving the legislation, a retaliation for a new US law that bans alleged Russian human rights abusers from visiting the country.

Mr Putin said that despite Americans being “up to their ears in a certain substance” made up of their own problems, they still insisted on highlighting Russia’s ills.

“Why does one country consider itself entitled to spread its jurisdiction to the entire world?” he said in his characteristic rapid-fire delivery.

“Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo – people are kept in prison for years without being charged, they walk around in shackles like in the Middle Ages. “They have legalised torture inside their own country.

“Can you imagine what it would be like if we had at least something similar? We’d have been eaten alive! They would spread such a Bacchanalia [of criticism]! But in the US there’s only silence.”

The withering remark was just one of the notable moments in a combative performance from the Russian leader, who was giving his first mass press conference – a yearly feature of his first two terms in the Kremlin – since 2008.

Mr Putin also warned of an “endless” war in Syria, promised French actor Gerard Depardieu a Russian passport and claimed jailed billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky had been fairly prosecuted.

More than 1,200 reporters from all over the country and abroad attended the event at a central Moscow business centre. As in the past, many provincial journalists frantically waved signs with the names of their regions, or with words on the subject they wanted to ask about: Ice, Crude oil, Students, Problem, and From the Countryside were just some.

Delegates took the microphone with flowery compliments on Mr Putin’s achievements and his family. One invited him to a celebration of record coal production and a correspondent from Kalmykia on the Caspian coast asked for a birthday message for his daughter. The president dashed it off on a notepad and handed it over forthwith.

But there was also a smattering of ticklish questions from liberal media – and some surprisingly challenging posers from pro-Kremlin outlets.

The Russian leader seemed at ease as he kicked off with a 15-minute speech giving a blizzard of statistics about harvest output, tractor production and rising birthrates. Yet two early questions about the legislation to ban Americans adopting Russian children – which still needs to pass a third reading in the State Duma and be signed by the president – appeared to get his hackles up.

One reporter criticised the law, which is named after Dima Yakovlev, a Russian toddler who died in Virginia in 2008 when his adoptive US father forgot him in a car for nine hours. The reporter said he had been humiliated in a Russian court when trying to adopt a child.

But Mr Putin retorted that the failure to allow Russian oversight of court cases involving abuse of adoptees in the US was unacceptable.

“Do you think this is normal? What’s normal if you are humiliated?” he asked the journalist. “Are you a sado-masochist?”

The law, which would end around 1,000 adoptions a year, came after Barack Obama last week signed into law the Magnitsky Act – a measure paying tribute to a Russian lawyer who died in custody in Moscow in 2009 after blowing the whistle on a $235 million police embezzlement scheme.

After a raft of questions on internal matters, which he used to plug Russia’s reviving economy, Mr Putin returned to foreign affairs. Asked whether Russia was risking its reputation in the Middle East by supporting Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, whose government could fall, he replied: “We are not anxious about the fate of Assad’s regime. We understand what is happening there and that [his] family has been in power for 40 years. Undoubtedly, change is needed. We are worried about something else: what happens next.” Russia wanted to see dialogue between Mr Assad and the Syrian opposition to “save the region and the country from collapse and endless civil war,” he added.

In a curious vignette, Mr Putin said the French actor Gerard Depardieu – who recently announced he was leaving France because of high taxes – was welcome to a Russian passport if he wanted one.

When a pro-Kremlin website asked if he had promised so much to the Russian people because he knew the exact date for the end of the world, the Russian leader caused a ripple of excitement by confirming “I know when the end of the world will be”.

However, after a pause for effect, Mr Putin added: “In about 4.5 billion years’ time.” The Russian leader brushed off rumours over his health, suggesting they were invented by his political opponents.

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