Russia reverses blanket ban on protests around Sochi Olympics

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been trying to quell human rights criticism; protests will likely be limited

Police officers detain a gay rights activist during an unauthorized protest outside the headquarters of the Sochi 2014 Organizing Committee in central Moscow on Sept. 25, 2013.
Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin has rescinded a blanket ban on demonstrations in and around the site of the Winter Olympics and Paralympics in Sochi, in a possible attempt to quell the growing unrest around Russia’s human rights record.

An order published on the Kremlin's website Saturday says that meetings, gatherings, demonstrations, marches and picketing that are not connected with the games may be held in spaces or along routes approved by the Interior Ministry, which is in charge of the country's police.

Putin last year ordered a ban on any demonstrations in Sochi not connected with the games from Jan. 7 to March 21. The move was widely criticized by human rights organizations.

Although the Saturday order lifts the blanket ban, Russian authorities generally are stingy about granting rally permission to opposition groups and critics.

International Olympic Committee head Thomas Bach said last month that Russia had promised to set up public protest zones in Sochi. It was not clear if the order published Saturday envisioned limiting demonstrations to such zones.

"We welcome this announcement -- it is in line with the assurances that President Putin gave us last year and part of the Russian authorities' plans to ensure free expression during the games while delivering safe and secure games," said Mark Adams, a spokesman for the IOC.

Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Saturday appeared to indicate that protests would be allowed only in one place.

"The organizers of the Olympic Games together with the leaders of the Krasnodar Region and Sochi City Hall have been ordered by the president to choose a square in the city where rallies, demonstrations and other events -- including of a protest character where necessary -- could be held freely," Peskov was quoted as saying by the R-Sport news agency.

The Russian law passed last year that bans promotion of "non-traditional sexual relations" to minors prompted calls by gay rights activists and others for a boycott of the Sochi games, which begin Feb. 7. Even before the law, Russian authorities routinely banned applications to hold gay rights rallies and quickly broke up attempts at unauthorized gatherings.

Putin appears to be on a mission to calm criticism of his human rights record before the games.

Last month he released the imprisoned members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot after months of pressure from human rights groups. He also released Greenpeace activists who had been held on “hooliganism” charges after protesting near a Russian oil rig in the Arctic.

Putin is also dealing with concern about security at the Olympics, which spiked this week after two suicide bombings in the city of Volgograd killed 34 people. Although there has been no claim of responsibility for the bombings, the leader of the Islamist insurgency in Russia's Caucasus region had called last year for attacks that would undermine the Olympics.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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