Russia Warns Olympic Athletes Could Be Fined or Arrested for Violating Ant-Gay Laws

Gay activists express concern over discrimination during the Olympic Games.

August 1, 2013, 1:51 PM

August 1, 2013— -- Russia's sports minister confirmed that athletes and spectators attending next year's Winter Olympic Games in the southern city of Sochi will face fines, arrest and deportation if they violate the country's new anti-gay law.

In Russia gay public displays of affection, including holding hands, or displaying symbols like a rainbow flag, are now banned. It is even illegal to speak about homosexuality around minors. Technically the ban is against "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations" around minors, but the implication for openly gay individuals is clear.

Minister Vitaly Mutko told the Russian sports website R-Sport today that athletes will be accountable under the law, contradicting assurances the International Olympic Committee says it has received from "the highest level of the government in Russia."

"No one is forbidding an athlete with non-traditional sexual orientation from coming to Sochi, but if he goes onto the street and starts propagandizing it, then of course he will be held accountable," Mutko told R-Sport.

The IOC did not respond to requests for comment on the latest comments. The U.S. Olympic Committee deferred to a previous letter sent to American athletes warning them about the law and promising to do "what they can to ensure the safety of all Americans at the Games."

Mutko's statement comes on the heels of comments by a lawmaker from St. Petersburg set off a firestorm online when he stated that fans and athletes would not be immune from prosecution under the law during the games.

Vitaly Milonov, who sponsored legislation on the regional level in St. Petersburg last year that was the basis for a national law signed by President Putin in June, was quoted telling the Interfax news agency that the law will remain in place during the Olympics and will be applied to foreigners.

Milonov is only a regional lawmaker, not a member of the federal government or the national legislature, but he has been on the forefront of Russia's war against homosexuality. Last summer he threatened to fine pop star Madonna for violating the law after she spoke out against it from the stage during a concert in St Petersburg.

Earlier, the International Olympic Committee appears only cautiously optimistic that the games will be safe for gay athletes and fans, noting that it has sought assurances from Russian authorities.

"This legislation has just been passed into law and it remains to be seen whether and how it will be implemented, particularly as regards the Games in Sochi," the IOC said in an emailed statement to ABC News.

"The IOC has received assurances from the highest level of government in Russia that the legislation will not affect those attending or taking part in the Games," the statement continued.

Earlier, the IOC said it continues to urge that the games "take place without discrimination against athletes, officials, spectators and the media."

At least one athlete, openly gay New Zealand speed skater Blake Skjellerup, has already pledged to wear a rainbow pin during the games.

Anti-gay sentiment runs high in Russia, where homosexuality was illegal during the Soviet Union and only decriminalized in 1993. A law that sent homosexuals to psychiatric wards wasn't annulled until 1999. Petitions for gay pride parades in Moscow have been rejected and unsanctioned rallies are often met by egg-throwing Russian Orthodox believers as well as physical violence. Police are often seen ignoring the attacks and detaining the gay rights activists.

In recent months, a new trend of attacks has gained popularity on Russian social media. Groups lure gay men online into meeting them in person, then humiliate and attack them on camera. They post the images and videos online under a hashtag that translates as "Occupy Pedophilia."

The United States has not yet issued any specific warning to gay Americans traveling to Russia. The State Department's informational page about Russia, however, does take note of the law and notes the dangers faced by those who are openly gay in Russia.

"Discrimination based on sexual orientation is widespread in Russia. Harassment, threats, and acts of violence targeting LGBT individuals have occurred," the State Department page says. "Public actions (including dissemination of information, statements, displays, or perceived conspicuous behavior) contradicting or appearing to contradict such laws may lead to arrest, prosecution, and the imposition of a fine."

The concern about discrimination against foreigners attending the Olympics comes amid a renewed effort abroad to pressure Russia about the new anti-gay law, including calls for boycott of the games as well as of Russian products.

While calls for a full boycott of the games have been few thus far, some activists, including the group Human Rights Campaign, are urging NBC, which will air the games in the United States, to include stories about the anti-gay law in its coverage.

Mark Lazarus, the head of NBC Sports, has promised that if the law impacts any part of the Winter Games "we will make sure we are acknowledging it and recognizing it," according to the Guardian.

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