January 19, 2014 at 11:59 am EST | by Michael K. Lavers
Putin: Gay rights protesters won’t face prosecution during Olympics

ABC News, George Stephanopoulos, Russia, Vladimir Putin, Sochi, Russia, gay news, Washington Blade

ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos interviewed Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) in Sochi, Russia, on Jan. 17. (Photo by Jeff Overs/BBC)

Russian President Vladimir Putin told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos during an interview his network aired on Sunday that those who protest the Kremlin’s LGBT rights record during the 2014 Winter Olympics will not face prosecution under Russia’s controversial law that bans gay propaganda to minors.

“Acts of protest and acts of propaganda are somewhat different things,” Putin told Stephanopoulos through a translator during an interview with him and a handful of other journalists from Russia, China and the U.K., that took place in Sochi, Russia, on Friday. “They are close, but if we were to look at them from the legal perspective, then protesting a law does not amount to propaganda of sexuality or sexual abuse of children.”

Putin once again sought to downplay concerns over the gay propaganda law ahead of the Sochi games that begin on Feb. 6 during his interview with Stephanopoulos that aired on “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.”

“It has nothing to do with prosecuting people for their non-traditional orientation,” he told Stephanopoulos. “In this country, everybody is absolutely equal to anybody else, irrespective of one’s religion, sex, ethnicity or sexual orientation. Everybody is equal. So no concerns exist for people who intend to come as athletes or visitors to the Olympics.”

Putin said during the interview that “homosexuality remains a felony” in some U.S. states — Stephanopoulos pointed out the U.S. Supreme Court has struck down these anti-sodomy laws.

The Russian president also noted homosexuality remains a crime in 70 countries — and seven of these nations impose the death penalty upon anyone found guilty of same-sex sexual relations.

Russia decriminalized homosexuality in 1993.

“Russia does not criminally prosecute people for being gay, unlike in over one-third of the world’s nations,” said Putin.

Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin criticized Putin’s comments to Stephanopoulos.

“President Putin’s public interpretation of the country’s anti-LGBT law is beyond comprehension,” said Griffin in a statement. “This law was designed to do nothing less than secure second class status for LGBT Russians and visitors. It does nothing to protect children, but goes great lengths to harm families.

Putin spoke with Stephanopoulos and other journalists from Russia, China and the U.K. a day before authorities detained a protester who unfurled a rainbow flag as the Olympic torch relay passed through the city of Voronezh.

Putin on Friday once again sought to downplay concerns over Russia’s gay propaganda law during a meeting with Olympic volunteers in Sochi.

“We aren’t banning anything, we aren’t rounding up anyone, we have no criminal punishment for such relations unlike many other countries,” said the Russian president as the Associated Press reported. “One can feel relaxed and at ease, but please leave the children in peace.”

LGBT rights advocates blasted Putin’s comments.

“This statement demonstrates very well how the official discourse labels LGBT people as a threat to children, instilling fear and hatred in the society,” Anastasia Smirnova, spokesperson for a coalition of six Russian LGBT advocacy groups that includes the Russian LGBT Network, told the Blade on Friday.

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who has frequently criticized the Kremlin over its LGBT rights record, described Putin’s comments as “sickening.”

The U.S. State Department on Jan. 10 issued an alert to Americans who plan to travel to Sochi that highlighted ongoing security concerns and the vagueness of Russia’s gay propaganda law.

“The job to Olympics host is to ensure security of the participants in the Olympics and visitors,” Putin told Stephanopoulos. “We will do whatever it takes.”

Michael K. Lavers has been a staff writer for the Washington Blade since May 2012. The passage of Maryland's same-sex marriage law, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the burgeoning LGBT rights movement in Latin America and the consecration of gay New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson are among the many stories he has covered since his career began in 2002. Follow Michael

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