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Kremlin Children’s Rights Chief Resigns Amid Scandal Over Boating Tragedy Comments

  • Carl Schreck

Pavel Astakhov has repeatedly courted controversy with bombastic and often bizarre public comments. (file photo)

Pavel Astakhov has repeatedly courted controversy with bombastic and often bizarre public comments. (file photo)

The Kremlin’s top children’s rights official says he has submitted his resignation to President Vladimir Putin, a move that comes a week after he triggered widespread outrage by asking a survivor of a mass drowning that killed 14 teenagers, "So, how was the swim?"

Pavel Astakhov, who as Russia's children’s rights ombudsman seized center stage in Moscow’s acrimonious standoff with Washington over foreign adoptions, confirmed on July 1 that he had tendered his resignation following 24 hours of fervent speculation about his possible exit.

"Yesterday, after a very serious, very frank conversation, I submitted my resignation indeed. But the president will decide," Astakhov told the independent Russian news outlet RBC.

RBC and other major Russian news outlets a day earlier quoted unidentified Kremlin sources as saying that Astakhov had formally offered to resign, though neither he nor the Kremlin immediately confirmed those reports.

Instead, Astakhov published a religion-themed Instagram post on June 30 following a meeting chaired by Putin, calling on readers to adhere to a Russian Orthodox fast, pray, to resist the "temptation" that "God tests each of us with."

It was a characteristically florid appeal by Astakhov, who has repeatedly courted controversy with bombastic and often bizarre public comments.

Last year, he defended the marriage of a middle-aged police chief to a 17-year-old girl in Russia's restive Chechnya region by noting different cultural norms in the vast country -- the minimum legal age to marry is 18 -- and saying that some women look "shriveled" by the time they're 27.

A colorful former trial lawyer who hosted a courtroom reality-television show, Astakhov used the children's rights ombudsman position as a high-profile lever in the Kremlin's foreign policy.

During his tenure, he portrayed himself as a relentless defender of Russian children anywhere in the world. He repeatedly turned cases of both confirmed and alleged child abuse involving Russian adoptees abroad into causes célèbres that directly impacted Moscow’s ties with other countries.

But his critics among the Russian opposition and in foreign governments repeatedly accused him of using his position to further the Kremlin's geopolitical goals rather than protect Russian children.

Most notably, he became a prominent Kremlin point man for a 2012 law barring U.S. citizens from adopting Russian children.

It was passed in response to the Magnitsky Act, a U.S. law sanctioning Russians deemed by Washington to be complicit in the 2009 death of whistle-blowing Russian tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky and other alleged human rights abuses.

Critics of the legislation have dubbed it the Scumbags' Law, saying it has condemned thousands of Russian children, many of them disabled, to lives in orphanages plagued by miserable conditions.

Astakhov has urged the government to impose the ban on other countries as well, describing the adoption of Russian orphans as a "semi-legal scheme of exporting children."

A supporter of a Russian law on banning the spread of "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations" among minors that critics say encourages discrimination against homosexuals, Astakhov has called same-sex couples raising children "artificial" and "infertile pseudo-families."

He has also proposed curious social experiments, such as mobilizing retirees "who sit at home and simply do nothing" into "pensioner patrols" to monitor troubled families.

'Awkward Turn Of Phrase'

Astakhov’s reported departure was preceded by an unusual amount of pressure from government-friendly media that rarely criticize or air the dirty laundry of senior officials who remain in the Kremlin's good graces.

The exposure focused on his seemingly insensitive comments during a June 23 meeting with children who survived a boating accident that killed 14 children at a camp near the Finnish border.

Speaking to two girls who survived the tragedy, Astakhov asked with a hint of a smile, "So how was the swim?"

Footage of the exchange was published in a mildly critical report by the state-friendly private television channel REN-TV. More critical coverage came from the pro-Kremlin tabloid LifeNews.

The Kremlin called his comments an "awkward turn of phrase." Astakhov himself said his comments were taken out of context and has characterized his critics as being part of a U.S. smear campaign.

At the time of his resignation, more than 150,000 people had signed a petition on the popular online campaign site calling for him to step down.

RBC quoted sources as saying that Astakhov's resignation was connected to his numerous controversial public statements -- including those about "shriveled" women and the recent boat tragedy.

The newspaper also said the Kremlin’s anticorruption directorate had questions about Astakhov. Earlier on June 30, a LifeNews reporter covering the Kremlin also suggested officials had questions about Astakhov's financial dealings.

Astakhov, who holds law degrees from both the Feliks Dzerzhinsky KGB School in Moscow and the University of Pittsburgh School of Law in the United States, has participated as a lawyer in numerous high-profile cases over the past two decades.

During his defense of accused U.S. spy Edmond Pope in 2000, Astakhov delivered his summation in iambic pentameter. Three years later, he wrote a letter to then-U.S. President George W. Bush volunteering to serve as counsel to deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Early in Putin's first term, Astakhov criticized the president and accused him of using Russia's courts to impose the government’s agenda.

In 2007, however, he became a leader in a pro-Putin group that urged the president to remain in office despite a constitutional ban on a third consecutive term.