Thursday, January 30, 2014

More than 50 Olympic athletes call on Russia to repeal anti-gay laws - From The Guardian

More than 50 Olympic athletes call on Russia to repeal anti-gay laws 

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Current and former Olympians criticise Games officials and sponsors for lack of action over anti-gay measures
On the eve of the Sochi Winter Games, more than 50 current and former Olympians have called on the Russian authorities to repeal recently introduced anti-gay laws and criticised the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and multinational sponsors for not doing more to force them to do so.
Fifty-two Olympians, with dozens of medals between them and including 12 competitors in Sochi, have launched a trenchant criticism of the lack of action to force Vladimir Putin's administration to scale back laws that forbid "gay propaganda" aimed at under-18s and have led to a wave of homophobic attacks.
The signatories to the so-called "principle six" campaign – named after the clause in the Olympic charter that supposedly guarantees non-discrimination – include the American snowboarding gold medallist Seth Wescott, the Sochi-bound Canadian biathlete Rosanna Crawford and the Australian four-man bobsled team.
Other famous former Olympians who are backing the call include the tennis players Martina Navratilova and Andy Roddick, the former Leeds United footballer Robbie Rogers, and the four-time gold-medal-winning diver Greg Louganis.
"As an athlete, as an American, and as a believer in equal rights and equal opportunity for everyone, I realised I needed to speak up because that's not where we are today in sports," the American rower Esther Lofgren, a gold medallist at London 2012, told the Guardian. "The mission is to support all athletes to be themselves and be free to be athletes."
Megan Rapinoe, who won gold in the women's football in London, said she believed the IOC should have done more and made it clear that this was not a political issue but a basic question of human rights.
"I understand and respect that the Olympics are not the time nor place for political statements, but this is far beyond any kind of statement," she told the Guardian.
"People's lives and their wellbeing are in danger, and that goes far beyond anything the Olympics stand for. I think it is important to talk about it and have an ongoing conversation during these Games, and not have this issue silenced."
Nicky Symmonds, an American runner who criticised the laws in Moscow after winning a silver medal at the athletics world championships last year, said the experience persuaded him that athletes needed to speak up on the issue.
"While there, I saw video of people being shoved to the street for expressing their love and the image bothered me very much," he said. "I also spoke with members of the gay community in Russia who said they had been treated better under Soviet rule than they were currently being treated under Putin's leadership, and wanted to lend my support in any way I could."
Campaigners believe the new laws have had a chilling effect, increasing the number of homophobic attacks on Russia's gay population.
This week, when pressed by the Guardian, the IOC president, Thomas Bach, confirmed athletes would be free to call for equality in press conferences but that a ban on making political statements during competition or medal ceremonies would stand.
But even that was immediately contradicted by the Sochi 2014 chief executive, Dmitry Chernyshenko, who said athletes who wished to speak out against the anti-gay legislation would have to do so in a special "protest zone", 11 miles (18km) from the Olympic Village. "There is a lot more that could be done by the Russian government, the IOC and sponsors," said Andre Banks, the co-founder of All Out, which launched the campaign in partnership with the anti-homophobia group Athlete Ally.
"They want this story to go away and have been totally unwilling to make any real concessions regarding the law. There are precedents. In Beijing, China had to change its laws following pressure from the IOC. In London, the IOC put a lot of pressure on the Saudi Arabian government to allow women to compete."
Human rights organisations hope to increase the pressure on Russian organisers as next week's opening ceremony nears, but many national Olympic associations have prioritised the need to concentrate on the performance of their athletes and avoid distractions.
Amnesty International, which is also concerned about a wider crackdown on human rights under Putin, this week staged a protest outside the Russian embassy in London and delivered a petition signed by more than 10,000 members of the British public.
In the US, LGBT groups have forced the Olympic sponsors Coca-Cola and McDonalds to pull or amend social media advertising campaigns after hijacking them to highlight their lack of action to put pressure on the IOC and organisers. "The IOC have a responsibility to deliver the Games successfully, but they also have a responsibility to deliver the Games in line with the values of the Olympic movement," said Banks.
Putin, who has invested $51bn in making the Sochi Games a showcase for Russia, attempted to explain the law in a recent interview, insisting it was not at all discriminatory and was only meant to protect children.
"We are not forbidding anything and nobody is being grabbed off the street, and there is no punishment for such kinds of relations," said Putin. "You can feel relaxed and calm [in Russia], but leave children alone please."
The gay propaganda law was partly meant for internal consumption, though it also fits into Putin's attempt to position Russia as the last bastion of traditional values in Europe, which has become more pronounced in the past year.
But the Russian president has been surprised by the reaction that it has produced abroad and the Kremlin is irritated that so many column inches have been written about the law in the runup to Sochi.
The pronouncements of Russian officials have hardly helped calm the situation. The Sochi mayor, Anatoly Pakhomov, dismissed the concerns completely in an interview with the BBC this week, claiming that there were no gay people in Sochi.
His statement, while obviously ridiculous, shows that many Russian gay people have to lead hidden lives, and in official circles very few gay Russians are out of the closet. Not everyone is in the shadows, however, and the Sochi local Andrei Ozerny published a blogpost addressed to Pakhomov on Wednesday saying: "I would like to tell you that there are many gay people in Sochi … and I am one of them." Ozerny said Sochi had traditionally been relatively tolerant towards gay people: "Actually Sochi is one of the most tolerant cities in our hideously homophobic country. Of course, there are various unpleasant incidents, but overall the gay people that are a mythical phenomenon for you fit perfectly normally into city life."
However, he added, the increased focus on gay issues in the runup to the Olympics had led to the feeling that the community was guilty for all the negative coverage that the Sochi Games had been receiving, and had thus increased tensions.
Leading Russian gay rights groups are not planning to travel to Sochi, partly because of the expense involved in getting to the city and staying there, as well as bureaucratic hassles with getting into the wider Sochi area during the Games.
Gay pride marches and protests in support of gay rights have routinely been banned in Sochi in the past, as in all Russian cities. When activists attempt to rally anyway, they are often detained by police. © 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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Opponents Call Ukraine Leader's Sick Leave Delay Tactic

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Updated Jan. 30, 2014 2:28 p.m. ET
A protester guards the barricades in front of riot police in Kiev, Ukraine, Thursday. Associated Press
KIEV, Ukraine—Ukraine's president and his opponents accused one another of sabotaging efforts to end the political crisis Thursday, as an unexpected presidential sick leave further dampened hopes for compromise.
President Viktor Yanukovych's absence was quickly denounced by his opponents as a case of executive malingering in a country where politicians have in the past delayed one another in parliament by throwing eggs, padlocking the doors and body-blocking the rostrum.
The Ukrainian president's office issued a statement saying Mr. Yanukovich, 63, is taking time off from work because of a fever and respiratory illness. The statement did not indicate when he would return to work.
Mr. Yanukovych's unusual absence came amid signs the Ukrainian president is digging in against opponents who seek his ouster. An aide said power remains firmly in his hands, and he departed without signing key legislation passed by parliament this week that was designed to allay opponents by retracting laws that stiffened penalties for street protests.
Mr. Yanukovych is coming under pressure from Russia to stand up to his westward-leaning opponents, who began protests two months ago after he abruptly scuttled plans to sign an agreement that would have deepened ties with the European Union.
The Kremlin said it is holding back some of the $15 billion-aid package it offered to Ukraine last year. It said it first needed to understand the composition of Mr. Yanukovych's new cabinet, which he has moved to reshuffle in a bid to placate protesters.
But Mr. Yanukovych also appears to be facing resistance among his allies as he attempts to hold an otherwise hard line toward the protests. Mr. Yanukovych's opponents quickly called his absenteeism a delay tactic, apparently hoping that subzero temperatures in Kiev might wear down the resolve of protesters who are camped out in the center of the capital.
"The president's sickness is a political disease," the opposition party UDAR, led by boxer-turned-politician Vitali Klitschko, said. "This is a withdrawal from political crisis" that will give him a pause from "urgent decisions."
Mr. Yanukovych has at times appeared isolated as he has tried to face down a protest movement that is demanding snap elections that would almost certainly end in his political demise. Lately he has had difficulty persuading delegates of his own political party to pursue a hard line.
On Thursday, demonstrators sat near a fire at a barricade erected by antigovernment protesters near the site of clashes with riot police in Kiev. Reuters
Late Wednesday, he made a rare appearance in parliament where legislators were considering granting amnesty to protesters who have been detained since protests began. During intense discussions, he persuaded his party instead to back an amnesty that was contingent on protesters leaving buildings they occupy in Kiev and some western cities.
Opposition leaders denounced the law Thursday, and they said they had no intention of giving up control of the center of Kiev.
"We have put in far too much effort into putting up these barricades" to take them down, said Andrei Paruby, a protest leader who manages the downtown encampment, speaking to a Ukrainian news service. "On them are the icons to people who died."
Write to James Marson at
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Ukraine's Yanukovych Announces Sick Leave

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President Viktor Yanukovych and his opponents accused one another of sabotaging efforts to end the political crisis, as his unexpected sick leave further dampened hopes for compromise.
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