Russia is not "going after" gays, President Vladimir Putin said Friday, defending a ban on "propaganda of homosexuality" that has brought criticism from the West ahead of next month's Winter Olympics.
Responding to a question from an Olympics volunteer during a visit in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi, Putin vowed that gays face no discrimination in Russia and could feel "at ease."
But he emphasized that because of the new law, they cannot express their views on gay-rights issues to anyone underage.
Putin appeared to lump homosexuality and pedophilia together. "We have no ban on nontraditional sexual relations. We have a ban on propaganda of homosexuality and pedophilia — I want to underline that — on propaganda among minors," he said.
Critics say the law is discriminatory and part of a rolling back of human rights and democratic freedoms under Putin, who has taken a more conservative course on social issues since returning to the presidency in mid-2012. The law specifically refers only to "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations."
Putin said some U.S. states have proposed laws that would criminalize gay sex.
"We aren't banning anything. We aren't rounding up anyone. We have no criminal punishment for such relations, unlike many other countries," he said. "One can feel relaxed and at ease, but please leave the children in peace."
In the wake of the international outcry against the bill, Russian authorities have put limits on the right to protest during the Sochi Games, which run Feb. 7 to Feb. 23.
A presidential decree initially banned all rallies in Sochi from Jan. 7 to March 21, but Putin later rescinded the ban to allow demonstrations at venues determined by the Interior Ministry.
In a clear message to Moscow, U.S. President Barack Obama included three openly gay athletes in his Olympic delegation, and Britain said it would send to Sochi a minister responsible for the U.K.'s same-sex marriage laws.
The Kremlin hopes the games will showcase Russia's modern face more than two decades after the Soviet Union collapsed.
But Russia last year upset the West and human-rights activists by banning what it called the promotion of homosexuality among minors. Calls for a mass boycott of the games have failed, but the row has clouded the buildup to the event.
Moscow has said it expects more than 6,000 athletes from 85 countries and hundreds of thousands of sports fans in Sochi for the event, which have cost $50 billion.