Vladimir Putin Defends Anti-Gay Law, but Vows No 'Problems' for Olympic Visitors

Russian president says non-discriminatory law aims to protect children.

ByABC News
January 19, 2014, 6:48 AM

MOSCOW, JAN. 19, 2014— -- Russian President Vladimir Putin defended his country's controversial new anti-gay law, saying it aims to protect children and does not discriminate against anyone.

"It seems to me that the law that we have adopted does not hurt anyone," he said during an interview with a small group of reporters in Sochi Friday, including ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos, the only U.S. reporter.

"Moreover, individuals of non-traditional orientation cannot feel like second-rate humans in this country because they are not discriminated against in any way."

Full 'This Week' Interview Transcript: Russian President Vladimir Putin

But that didn't prevent a gay Russian protester from being detained Saturday for unfurling a rainbow flag during the Olympic torch relay as it passed through his hometown of Voronezh, 560 miles north of Sochi, where the games will begin Feb. 7, The Associated Press reported.

Photos uploaded by his friends show Pavel Lebedev pulling out the flag and then being detained by Olympic security personnel, who wrestle him to the snow as they wait for police to arrive. Lebedev, reached by The Associated Press on the phone, said he was still in the police station and undergoing questioning.

The Russian law, passed last year, outlaws what it describes as "propaganda" of "non-traditional sexual relations" around minors. Critics and gay rights advocates say, however, that the law potentially makes any public display of homosexuality, or even displaying gay pride symbols like a rainbow pin, illegal.

In the wide-ranging interview, his first with a U.S. television network since returning to the Kremlin in 2012, Putin rejected that characterization, noting that Soviet-era laws making homosexuality illegal were struck down years ago.

"It has nothing to do with persecuting people for their non-traditional orientation," Putin said Friday. "My personal position is that society must keep children safe."

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His comments come amid fears that fans and athletes at the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi could be prosecuted for violating the law. Russia has provided assurances to the International Olympic Committee that the law will not apply during the games, yet senior Russian officials have sent mixed signals.

In his interview, Putin suggested they will not be prosecuted during the games.

"I couldn't care less about their sexual orientation. We will welcome all athletes and all visitors to the Olympics," he said. "None of our guests will have any problems."

Putin blasted those calling for a boycott of the Sochi Olympics because of the law and rejected Western criticism of the law, saying "the Russian people have their own cultural code, their own tradition. We don't interfere, don't stick our noses in their life and we ask that our traditions and culture are treated with the same respect."

Putin said he would be willing to meet with the U.S. delegation, which includes gay athletes like tennis legend Billie Jean King, figure skating star Brian Boitano and hockey player Caitlin Cahow.

King recently told ABC News' Amy Robach that she has a direct message for President Putin.

"Please change this law. Just be inclusive -- champion everyone, don't -- have groups where you don't treat them the same ," she said.

King said the Sochi Olympics should be seen as an opportunity for gay athletes.

"For me, personally, if I were still young enough to be going to the Olympics to perform, this would give me such high incentive. I'd be crazed. I'd be like, 'Let's go,'" she said.Though few have been prosecuted under the law since it was enacted last year, gay rights activists say it has made an already difficult situation for Russia's gays even more perilous.

"The propaganda laws are almost the least of it. It's a huge concerted campaign that's unleashed by the Kremlin. It's a campaign of hate and violence," Masha Gessen, a Russian-American journalist who recently fled to New York for fear of Russia's mounting threats on homosexuals.