MOSCOW (Reuters) - U.S. visa restrictions on Russian officials linked to the death of hedge fund lawyer Sergei Magnitsky could become a "serious irritant" in bilateral relations and provoke a response from Moscow, Russia's Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday.
Mark Toner, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department, confirmed on Wednesday that the United States has imposed visa restrictions on some Russian officials believed involved in Magnitsky's death. He said the restrictions were imposed as part of a broader program targeting human rights violators.
"We do issue visa restrictions on individuals around the world. In this specific case it was the individuals we believe are responsible for his death," Toner said in a briefing. "The Magnitsky case has long been an issue of concern between us and Russia and we've raised it with them many times."
The 2009 death of the 37-year-old, who worked for equity fund Hermitage Capital and died after a year in Russian jails, spooked investors and tarnished Russia's image. The Kremlin's human rights council says he was probably beaten to death.
The Russian Foreign Ministry, reacting to reports of the U.S. visa restrictions, said "such actions could introduce a serious irritant to Russian-U.S. relations."
"We will not leave such unfriendly steps unanswered and we will take adequate measures, protecting the sovereignty of our country and rights of Russian citizens against unjustified moves by foreign states," the ministry statement said.
Magnitsky's death has become a test of President Dmitry Medvedev, who has vowed to reform a justice system he says is badly flawed. But he is seen as having made little progress since he became president in 2008.
Toner said the Obama administration takes the case "very seriously." President Barack Obama discussed it during his talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov two weeks ago, the White House said in a statement after the meeting.
Renewed friction over the case comes as the U.S. Senate advances a proposed Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act that would require the State Department to publish a list of Russian officials believed responsible in the death, bar them from obtaining U.S. visas and freeze their U.S. assets.
The Obama administration has drafted a memo opposing the legislation, saying it had taken similar action under existing law, according to a copy of the document obtained by The Cable blog at Foreign Policy magazine and posted on the Internet. The White House and State Department declined to comment on the memo but did not dispute its accuracy.
"Secretary (of State Hillary) Clinton has taken steps to ban individuals associated with the wrongful death of Sergei Magnitsky from traveling to the United States" under existing law, which already bars foreigners who have engaged in torture and extrajudicial killings, the draft says.
The memo also says Russian officials have warned that passage of the Senate measure would have an impact on its cooperation with the United States on issues of international concern, including transit to Afghanistan. A key route for supplying troops in Afghanistan goes across Russia.
"Senior Russian government officials have warned us that they will respond asymmetrically if this legislation passes," the memo says. "Their argument is that we cannot expect them to be our partner in supporting sanctions against countries like Iran, North Korea and Libya and sanction them (Russia) at the same time."
U.S.-Russian relations soured during President George W. Bush's administration but improved significantly under Obama, who took office in 2009 promising a "reset" in bilateral ties. The two countries have cooperated on a range of issues viewed as strategically important by the United States.
Asked whether the visa restrictions dispute threatened to unravel improved relations, Toner expressed appreciation for Russian cooperation but said the countries would sometimes disagree.
"Our relationship with Russia, the so-called reset, is based on areas where we can cooperate productively together," he said.
"They've been a valuable international partner on issues like Libya and elsewhere, but that's not ever going to be done at the expense of principles that we hold dear," Toner said.
The Kremlin human rights council, which reports to Medvedev, said earlier this month that Magnitsky was probably beaten to death in pre-trial detention.
Magnitsky's colleagues allege the charges of tax evasion and fraud against him were fabricated by police investigators whom he had accused of stealing $230 million from the state through fraudulent tax returns
They also say his death was the result of a conspiracy led by the same officers.
(Reporting by Thomas Grove and Amie Ferris-Rotman in Moscow and David Alexander in Washington; Editing by Paul Simao)