Russian LGBT activists arrested on first day of Sochi games

At least 14 arrested in St. Petersburg and Moscow as Western leaders criticize Putin's anti-gay laws

An Interior Ministry officer detains a gay rights activist attempting to hold a protest rally in Moscow’s Red Square on Friday.
Yevgeny Feldman/Reuters

Russian police have arrested at least 14 gay rights activists protesting in Moscow and St. Petersburg on the opening day of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.

In Moscow, police quickly detained 10 activists who waved rainbow flags Friday on Red Square, according to Russian news reports.

In St. Petersburg, four demonstrators unfurled a banner quoting the Olympic Charter's ban on any form of discrimination. The protesters, who gathered on the city's Vasilyevsky Island, were quickly rounded up by police, according to local LGBT activist Natalia Tsymbalova.

Police refused any immediate comment.

The arrests came as Western powers urged Russia to ease its anti-gay laws, which are in the spotlight as the country hosts the Winter Games.

A Russian law banning gay "propaganda" from reaching minors has drawn strong international criticism for months, with some calling for a boycott of the Sochi games. Russian law also bans any unsanctioned protests, and violators may face fines or prison sentences.

One of the protesters, Anastasia Smirnova, posted a thank-you to supporters on her Facebook page, writing, according to CBS News, “Can't write much as phones are not permitted, and they are now calling us to sign papers. Cosmic hugs to you from our police station ... Detention for a photo with a banner — isn't it an amazing way to celebrate the Opening of the Games?'"

Meanwhile, when Russian President Vladimir Putin met on Friday with Dutch leaders who challenged his stance on LGBT rights, he replied that the games should be about sports and not about discussing politics.

Some world leaders — including President Barack Obama — chose to stay away from the event completely, partially due to Russia’s anti-gay laws. Other world leaders appeared less troubled by the issue.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, the highest-profile foreign head of state attending, congratulated Putin on the Olympics and hailed their countries' growing ties, which are often viewed as a challenge to Western domination of global affairs.

China's state-controlled media have barely mentioned the Russian law banning pro-gay "propaganda" that could be accessible to minors. It was signed by Putin in July.

"Japan pays close attention to the human rights situation in Russia, but we do not link it with Prime Minister Abe's attendance at the Sochi Olympics," Japan's Foreign Ministry said in a statement Friday.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is also attending, and used a speech ahead of the opening ceremony in Russia on Friday to push for gay rights in sports.

"Many professional athletes, gay and straight, are speaking out against prejudice. We must all raise our voices against attacks on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex people," he said. "We must oppose the arrests, imprisonments and discriminatory restrictions they face."

Even companies were chiming in.

Google changed its iconic search page logo to depict illustrations of athletes skiing, sledding, curling and skating against a rainbow-colored backdrop.

The company declined to comment on the new Google Doodle that appeared on its home pages worldwide, saying it wanted the illustration to speak for itself. But the logo was widely interpreted as a show of support for gay rights and a rebuke of Russia’s propaganda law. Below the updated logo appear sentences from the same section of the Olympic charter written on the arrested Russian activists’ banner: "The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind."

Al Jazeera and wire services

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