December 10 - Russia is to set-up public protest zones during Sochi 2014, International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach revealed here today.
Details of the decision, aimed at trying to defuse international criticism about the country's human rights record and new anti-gay legislation which has attracted worldwide condemnation, were outlined to the IOC's ruling Executive Board, meeting for the first time under Bach since he was elected to replace Jacques Rogge in September.
"We welcome the announcement of the [Sochi 2014] Organising Committee that in Sochi there will be protest zones that will be established for people who want to demonstrate against something," said Bach.
"They [protesters] will have the opportunity to do so in special protest zones.
"This was under discussion with the IOC for quite some time.
"It was announced to us today and it [zones] will be located in Sochi."
But details of the zones, including where they would be located in the city, was vague.
Similar zones were set-up during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing but were located so far from the venues that they were hardly used.
Rows over Russia's anti-gay propaganda law and its human rights record have increasingly dominated the final build-up to the first Olympics to be staged in the country since the Summer Games in Moscow in 1980.
It was a matter again highlighted today when European Union Commissioner Viviane Reding announced she would not travel to Sochi for the Games in protest over Russia's treatment of minorities.
"I will certainly not go to Sochi as long as minorities are treated the way they are under the current Russian legislation," Reding, who is from Luxembourg and the EU Commissioner for Justice, Citizenship and Fundamental Rights, said on Twitter.
Earlier this week German President Joachim Gauck had announced that he would not attend Sochi 2014.
His decision was interpreted by several human rights groups as a protest against the Russian Government.
But Bach, who is German himself, claimed here he did not believe that this was the case.
"These kind of invitations are invitations from Governments to Governments and it is not up to the IOC to intefere with Government relations," he said.
"On a personal note I know President Gauck is a very straightforward man.
"If his decision would have any political motivation he would have said this.
"He cannot travel to the country without an earlier state visit.
"I know him a little bit.
"He knows how to use the words and if he had something to say he would have said it."
Athletes competing in Sochi 2014 are to be reminded before the Games of what they can and cannot do during the event, including staging political protests, a subject covered under Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter.
"We approved information for National Olympic Committees and athletes with regard to [Charter] rules 50 to make them aware of the rules and going a step further to explain... why these rules are established and that they are there to protect them," said Bach.
But criticism of Russia continued to mount despite the latest initiative.
"IOC President Thomas Bach continues to collaborate with the Russian Government while Russian LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) citizens are arrested, jailed, beaten, raped, tortured, and murdered," said Andrew Miller, a member of Queer Nation, an activist group protesting against Russia's anti-gay laws.
"Instead of negotiating a protest zone, he should be demanding the repeal of Russia's anti-LGBT laws and insisting that the Russian Government respect the human rights of all its citizens."
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