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Russia demands access to Russian drug smuggler in U.S. jail

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[February 15, 2014]  MOSCOW (Reuters)  Russia has summoned an American embassy envoy, demanding diplomatic and medical access to a Russian drug smuggler imprisoned in the United States who Moscow says was tortured when arrested by the U.S. authorities in 2010.

In a statement published late on Friday, the Russian Foreign Ministry said a Russian doctor should examine Konstantin Yaroshenko, a pilot serving a 20-year sentence for conspiracy to smuggle cocaine into the United States and whose health, his lawyer says, has been worsening.

U.S.-Russia relations are fraught, with the two countries at loggerheads over Syria, where Russia backs President Bashar al-Assad, Putin's crackdown on internal dissent, and U.S. missile defense plans, which Russia says threaten its security.

Their relationship was further strained when Russia granted asylum to former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. The United States and Russia are also locked in a test of wills over Ukraine, which has been racked by anti-government protests and sporadic violence.

Yaroshenko's lawyer, Alexei Tarasov, told the Russia Today state TV channel that his client had experienced symptoms of a heart attack, but was not being helped. He also said Yaroshenko had told him he may not live through the weekend.

"The Russian side emphasized that the full responsibility for the life and health of our fellow citizen lies with the United States authorities," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in its statement. It would not name the U.S. diplomat.

"We have repeatedly drawn attention to the worsening of his chronic illnesses that resulted from torture and abuse he suffered during his arrest," the ministry said.

The American embassy was not immediately available to comment.

The Yaroshenko case comes nearly two years after the United States passed the Magnitsky Act, subjecting Russian officials implicated in the death of a Russian whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky to visa bans and assets freeze in the United States.

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Magnitsky died in suspicious circumstances in his jail cell in 2009.

Moscow has called for Yaroshenko to be extradited along with jailed arms dealer Viktor Bout, accusing the United States of biased and politically motivated prosecutions of its citizens.

Russia's Foreign Ministry said in its statement that Russian diplomats and doctors were preparing a visit to the Fort Dix Federal Correctional Facility in New Jersey, where Yaroshenko is being held.

"Russia has urged the United States authorities not to obstruct this mission, but instead offer all possible assistance," the ministry said.

Yaroshenko was arrested by U.S. special forces in the Liberian capital of Monrovia in May 2010 and convicted in 2011. Last year his sentence appeal was rejected.

Bout, who was extradited from Thailand to the United States in November 2010, is serving a 25-years sentence for conspiring to kill Americans and to provide help to a group deemed a terrorist organization by the United States.

(Reporting by Lidia Kelly; editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

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