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Obama invites Russian rights activists to meeting alongside G20 summit

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at a meeting with bipartisan Congressional leaders in the Cabinet Room at the White House in Washington w
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at a meeting with bipartisan Congressional leaders in the Cabinet Room at the White House in Washington w

By Gabriela Baczynska

MOSCOW (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama invited Russian human rights activists to meet him later this week, their groups said on Tuesday, a few weeks after snubbing Russian President Vladimir Putin amid spiraling disputes over human rights and security.

Obama, who will meet the activists in St Petersburg on the fringes of the September 5-6 summit of G20 leaders, last month pulled out of talks with Putin in a sign of the worst tensions between Moscow and Washington since the end of the Cold War.

The meeting with activists will underline U.S. displeasure over the state of human rights in Russia and new laws that critics of the Kremlin say clamp down on dissent, violate gay rights and restrain non-governmental organizations.

The meeting will take place on Thursday, according to Russian activists.

"Judging by the list of participants, we will talk about gay rights and the situation of non-governmental organizations in Russia," said Pavel Chikov of the legal advocacy rights Agora, at the forefront of accusations that Putin has been cracking down on dissent since he returned to the presidency last year.

The U.S. Embassy in Moscow had no immediate comment. The Kremlin said earlier that it was "disappointed" at Obama's decision not to meet Putin separately.

Veteran activists Svetlana Gannushkina and Lyudmila Alexeyeva both said they would attend the meeting with Obama but Alexeyeva said she felt it was more about U.S. dissatisfaction with Putin than interest in Russia's human rights situation.

"POLITICS"

"This is politics, this is because of Snowden and what else," she said. U.S. officials visiting Russia regularly meet human rights representatives.

Obama dropped the bilateral summit with Putin planned in Moscow after Russia granted asylum to Edward Snowden, an ex-intelligence contractor wanted by Washington over leaks of classified files on U.S. government surveillance activities.

Relations between Moscow and Washington have also been strained by rows over Syria.

Also invited to the meeting with Obama was St Petersburg's gay rights group Vykhod, or "Coming Out", which staged protests against a law Putin signed earlier this year banning "gay propaganda" among minors. The law has been widely criticized in the West as discriminatory.

The activists also said they hoped to bring up with Obama a new law on non-governmental organizations that forces those who receive foreign funding to register as "foreign agents", a term that carries Cold War overtones of treason.

Kremlin critics at home point to the law as part of an intensifying tightening of the screws orchestrated by Putin to strengthen his grip on power following the largest wave of street protests against his 13-year rule in 2011 and 2012.

The United States increased the friction last year when it adopted a blacklist of unwelcome Russian state officials whom it deemed rights violators, triggering an angry reaction from Moscow and a subsequent tit-for-tat move.

Among other laws approved by Putin in recent months and denounced by critics as repressive is a ban on Americans adopting Russian orphans.

(Additional reporting by Liza Dobkina, Editing by Thomas Grove and Mark Heinrich)

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