Sochi Olympics: With one month to go, global sports community should speak out on human rights

With one month to go until the start of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Amnesty International is calling on the global sports community not to be fooled by recent moves by President Putin and  to speak out about the worrying human rights situation in Russia.

The call is made in a new briefing released today entitled Behind the Smokescreen, which outlines Amnesty International’s concerns about human rights in Russia and includes several key cases.

Over the weekend, the Russian authorities announced they will now allow protests at the Games to go ahead, after saying last year they would be banned. This is the latest move by the authorities that appears to be an attempt to improve Russia’s international image as the Games approach.

Last month, a number of high-profile prisoners of conscience were among 2,000 freed in an amnesty. They included oil tycoon Mikhail Khordokovsky and two members of the punk rock band Pussy Riot. The Arctic 30 environmental protestors were also released.

However, the amnesty has been widely considered as a politically-expedient move ahead of the Games, with many more people remaining behind bars on politically-motivated charges.

Similarly, Amnesty International is pointing out that the U-turn on protests is not the thawing of restrictions on freedom of speech it may appear. Demonstrations will be confined to a designated zone, organisers must obtain permission from the municipal authorities as well as regional departments of the interior ministry, and the Federal Security Service.

Despite promises made by the Russian authorities that they would respect human rights during the Winter Olympics, Amnesty International has been growing increasingly concerned about the human rights situation in the country over the last few years.

Not only have punitive new laws cracking down on dissent, freedom of expression and assembly seen many individuals imprisoned on politically-motivated charges, but there are now severe restrictions on the Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) community and those who support them. Many NGOs face fines or closure under a new ‘foreign agents’ law’ which forces those receiving foreign funding to register, and describe themselves in all public materials, as foreign agents.

Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International UK, said:

“After London 2012, Russia signed a memorandum promising to respect human rights during the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

“However, a number of laws brought in by Putin’s government recently do exactly the opposite. There has been a crackdown on freedom of speech and expression, gay rights are being trampled on and NGOs silenced.

"The recent amnesty should be treated not as a benign act of clemency, but as a politically-expedient move in the run up to the Olympics. Many more people remain in jail on politically-motivated charges. The announcement of protest zones is a smokescreen. This is not a model that supports freedom of speech, in fact it actively denies it.

“Sports organisations, athletes and fans travelling to Sochi should not be fooled by Putin's apparent attempt to sweeten the Russia's international image. They should go with their eyes wide open to what is really happening in the country. With a month to go until the start of the Games, now is the time for the international sports community to be raising human rights concerns.

“With the world watching, this is Putin’s chance to show himself a world leader worthy of the title and deliver on the human rights promises made after London 2012.”

On 30 January Kate Allen and directors of other Amnesty offices around the world will hand a petition of tens of thousands of signatures to President Putin in Moscow, calling for end to the crackdown on human rights.

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Behind the Smokescreen