Putin backs off Sochi demonstrations ban

AP , Saturday 4 Jan 2014

A view from a helicopter shows the Fisht Olympic Stadium (C) and other Olympic venues under construction for the 2014 Winter Olympic games in Sochi 7 March, 2013 (Photo: Reuters)

Russian President Vladimir Putin has rescinded a blanket ban on demonstrations in and around the Winter Olympics and Paralympics in Sochi.

An order published on the Kremlin's website Saturday says that meetings, gatherings, demonstrations, marches and picketing that is not connected with the games may be held in places 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 7 January to 21 March. 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," 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 activists and others for a boycott of the Sochi games, which begin 7 February. Even before the law, Russian authorities routinely banned applications to hold gay rights rallies and quickly broke up attempts at unauthorized gatherings.

Putin was in Sochi on Saturday to inspect preparations for the games, which are the signature project of his presidency. The day included a ride on the light-rail line connecting the snow-sports area in the mountains to the cluster of arenas on the Black Sea coast where the ice sports will be held.

Concern about security at the Olympics 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 aimed at the Olympics or undermining them.

Russia has implemented high security measures for the Olympics themselves, but the Volgograd attacks showed that public transportation in Sochi and non-Olympics venues could be vulnerable to terrorism.

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