* Lawmakers table response to U.S. rights legislation
* Opponents unite with Putin’s party behind bill
* Spat unlikely to worsen already strained ties
By Steve Gutterman
MOSCOW, Dec 10 (Reuters) - Russia’s parliament moved on Monday to bar entry to the country for Americans who violate the rights of Russians, retaliating against U.S. legislation passed last week to punish Russian human rights abusers.
The bill approved by the U.S. Senate on Thursday would deny entry to Russians allegedly involved in the 2009 prison death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who became a symbol of the abuse of Russians who challenge the state, and others accused of rights violations.
The U.S. legislation has further strained a relationship tested by the conflict in Syria and the treatment of Kremlin opponents since Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency in May.
The spat may make it harder for Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama to halt a downward drift in relations, which had improved after Obama launched a “reset” of ties in 2009.
But it looks unlikely to derail Russian assistance on Afghanistan, affect diplomacy aimed at curbing Iran’s nuclear programme or deepen disputes over the Syria conflict and U.S. missile defence.
Moscow had warned it would retaliate against what Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called an “anti-Russian escapade” by its former Cold War foe.
“The American initiators ... must understand that their actions contradict the tasks of deepening the collaboration between Russia and the United States,” Lavrov said on Monday.
In a display of unity rare even for Russia’s parliament - in which Putin’s dominant party faces little opposition - all four parties in the State Duma (lower house) backed the legislation.
The bill, which both houses of parliament are likely to rush through by year-end, would deny entry visas to Americans involved in committing unspecified crimes against Russians abroad or violating their rights.
Mirroring the U.S. “Magnitsky Act” legislation, which Obama has said he will sign into law, the Russian bill would also freeze any Russian assets of those affected.
Americans affected by the bill could include those involved in the prosecution of Viktor Bout, a Russian arms trader serving a 25-year prison term in the United States after an arrest and trial condemned as unfair by Moscow.
Russian media said others barred from Russia could include people involved in the abuse of Russian children adopted by Americans. Russia says U.S. courts and authorities have been too lenient toward parents accused of sometimes grievous abuse.
Russia has warned it could respond with other unspecified measures. But it denied any connection between the Magnitsky Act and the announcement on Friday of restrictions on meat imports from several countries including the United States.
Putin, in power since 2000, has repeatedly said the United States has no right to claim a mantle of moral leadership, and Moscow has criticised Washington sharply over human rights, pointing to secret CIA jails abroad and treatment of inmates at the Guantanamo Bay facility in Cuba and elsewhere.
Yet Putin may want to limit the damage from the dispute and is unlikely to let it affect efforts to strengthen economic and trade relations with the United States.
The Senate approved the Magnitsky Act as part of a broader bill to grant Russia “permanent normal trade relations” (PNTR), which ensures U.S. companies can get the benefits of Russia’s entry in August to the World Trade Organization (WTO).