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Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has come under international criticism over a nationwide law banning "gay propaganda," said Wednesday that Russians must not "create a torrent of hatred towards anyone," including homosexuals, in remarks that may be aimed at easing concerns about the treatment of gays in Russia ahead of the Sochi Winter Olympics.
Some activists have argued that the Olympic Games should be boycotted in protest against the so-called gay propaganda law, which was passed with near unanimous support by Russian lawmakers and signed by Putin in June. It bans the "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations," and imposes fines for providing information about the gay community to minors.
Putin has staked personal political prestige on hosting successful Olympics Games, and made a point of telling a Olympic delegation last month that gays would be welcome at Sochi.
At a meeting with leaders of junior political parties on Wednesday, Putin defended the law, saying that it was meant to protect young people – but he added that hatred toward gays was unacceptable.
"You know how much criticism I had to listen to, but all we did on the government and legislative level (was) to do with limiting (gay) propaganda among minors," Putin said. "In the meantime we should not create a torrent of hatred towards anyone in society, including people of non-traditional sexual orientation."
Kremlin critics and gay rights groups say the law, part of a conservative course taken by Putin in his third term as president, has resulted in a surge of homophobic sentiment and violence against homosexuals in Russia.
The United Nations General Assembly urged Moscow earlier this month "to promote social inclusion without discrimination." Putin, however, has said there is no discrimination against homosexuals in Russia.
Russia's sports minister appeared to say, in remarks published this week, that it might have been wiser to wait until after the Winter Olympics to pass the law.
"One could have calculated the impact it would cause in the West, especially ahead of the Sochi Olympics," Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko was quoted as saying by rbc.ru website. "The leadership could possibly have put ... (it) on hold."
Putin's comments come amid a campaign by human rights activists to pressure top corporate sponsors of the Olympics to speak out before the Winter Games.
The Worldwide Olympic Partners — among them Coca-Cola, McDonald's and Visa — have thus far avoided requests to explicitly condemn the law.
Human Rights Watch, one of the organizations urging sponsors to call for the repeal of the Russian law, made available to The Associated Press letters sent by several of the corporations in response to its requests.
"There's no room for discrimination under the Golden Arches," said a statement from McDonald's. "We support the IOC's belief that sport is a human right and the Olympic Games should be open to all, free of discrimination."
Coca-Cola, the target of recent gay-rights protests in Atlanta and New York City calling for the company to speak out against the Russian law, noted that its employment practices had earned praise from the Human Rights Campaign over many years.
"We do not condone intolerance or discrimination of any kind anywhere in the world," it said.
But to date, rights organizations said none of the corporate sponsors – which also include General Electric, Procter & Gamble, Dow Chemical, Omega, Panasonic, Samsung and the French-based technology company Atos – has taken the step of urging for repeal of the law.
"The responses failed to recognize that their brands are propping up an event that will go down in history as the anti-gay games," said Fred Sainz of the Human Rights Campaign, the largest U.S. gay-rights group.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said that the Crimea region of Ukraine might already be lost to Russian control