|ESPN.com: Winter 2014||[Print without images]|
SOCHI, Russia -- Russian President Vladimir Putin sought Friday to reassure gay visitors to the Sochi Olympics that they are welcome in Russia but said they must "leave the children in peace."
Responding to a question from an Olympics volunteer during a visit in the Black Sea resort city, Putin vowed that gays face no discrimination in Russia and could feel "at ease."
But he emphasized that because of a Russian law banning gay "propaganda" among minors, they cannot express their views on gay rights issues to anyone under age.
We aren't banning anything, we aren't rounding up anyone, we have no criminal punishment for such relations ... One can feel relaxed and at ease, but please leave the children in peace.” -- Russian President Vladimir Putin
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.
Putin and other politicians have defended the June propaganda law as a protection of child rights, but critics believe the law discriminates against sexual minorities. The law specifically refers only to "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations."
Putin insisted the measure isn't discriminatory.
"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."
The White House responded to Putin's comments later Friday.
"We fundamentally disagree with the idea that anyone needs protection from LGBT individuals or from those advocating for the human rights of LGBT individuals. All people are created free and equal in dignity and rights, regardless of who they are or who they love," Caitlin Hayden, spokesperson for the National Security Staff, said.
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. 7-23. A presidential decree initially banned all rallies in Sochi from Jan. 7 to March 21, but Putin later rescinded the ban to allow demonstrations at venues determined by the Interior Ministry.
Putin also addressed security while speaking to television networks in Sochi in a segment aired Friday by state Rossiya television, saying Russia will do everything to ensure a safe Olympics without making security measures too intrusive. He also said Russia will do all that is necessary to protect the Games without "putting pressure" on athletes and visitors.
Security concerns were heightened by back-to-back suicide bombings in the city of Volgograd in southern Russia, which killed 34 and wounded 100 others, on Dec. 29-30. Volgograd is about 600 miles from Sochi.
Putin denied the Olympics are a vehicle to satisfy his personal ambitions and insisted they serve national interests. He argued the Games will help Russia regain its pride following the Soviet collapse and two separatist wars in Chechnya.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.