Russia Relaxes Ban on Protests During Sochi Winter Olympics

Vladimir Putin Meeting Russian Filmmakers 2013 H

The move by Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen as an attempt to further improve the country's human rights reputation before the world's media come to town.

Protests against Russia's anti-gay laws and other issues will be allowed in special zones during the Sochi Winter Olympics, after President Vladimir Putin relaxed an earlier ban.

People wishing to voice their opposition to the Games, laws forbidding the propagation of homosexual lifestyles to minors, environmental damage, corruption and a host of other social and political issues, will be permitted by agreement with local authorities and security officials in specially designated zones.

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The protest zones in Sochi, the Black Sea port city that is hosting the Winter Games, open Tuesday -- exactly a month before the games begin on Feb. 7 -- and will be available through March 21, well after the closing ceremony on Feb. 23.

The announcement, made after Putin signed a decree over the weekend, overturns an earlier ban on any protests at the Games, an intensely personal project for the president, who loves Sochi and is building a palatial holiday home for himself there.

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It is also seen as a move to assuage Western criticism ahead of the global sporting event. It follow the release from prison over the holiday period of Mikhail Khodorkovsky,  two Pussy Riot punk band members, and the Greenpeace "Arctic 30," a group of activists and two journalists who had been facing long jail terms after attempting to board a Russian gas platform in Arctic waters.

Stricter general security measures have been introduced in Sochi following twin suicide bombings in Volgograd in late December, which left 34 people dead and dozens injured. Although more than 400 miles from the Olympics site, Volgograd -- scene of the epic World War Two Battle of Stalingrad -- is the nearest large city to Sochi and is easily accessible by Islamic insurgents from the restive Chechnya and Dagestan regions of Russia, who are suspected of being behind the attacks.