Complaints about Russia's anti-gay stance refuse to abate as opening of Sochi Games approaches

The Associated Press

Israeli activists hold signs as they protest against Russia's human rights record and anti-gay law in front of Israel's President Shimon Peres' residence during the visit of Dmitry Kiselyov, head of Russia Today,  Russia's largest news agency, in Jerusalem, Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014. The law bans pro-gay "propaganda" that could be accessible to minors. Activists view the law as forbidding almost any public expression of gay-rights sentiment. Hebrew sign, center, reads, "homophobe and racist not in the presidents' residence," referring to the visitor. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

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By OSKAR GARCIA, Associated Press

SOCHI, Russia (AP) — A U.S. Olympic sponsor and U.N. panel condemned a Russian law criticized as a stifling of gay rights as protests were planned for around the world Wednesday, keeping an irritant to the hosts of the Winter Olympics front and center two days ahead of the opening ceremony.

Some athletes, barred by IOC rules from political debate while competing, hinted at the law as they began training for events that start Thursday. American figure skater Ashley Wagner joked that Sochi's color scheme — omnipresent inside the Olympic Park — reminded her of the rainbow flag used to symbolize gay pride.

"It doesn't really matter where I am. It's still my opinion," Wagner said. "I just believe in equality for all."

The law signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin in July bans pro-gay "propaganda" that could be accessible to minors. Critics say it is so restrictive that it forbids almost any public expression of support for gay rights. Last month, for example, a newspaper editor in Russia's Far East was fined 50,000 rubles ($1,400) for publishing an interview with a gay school teacher who defended homosexuality.

Detractors have pressed the International Olympic Committee and its corporate sponsors to denounce the law and call for its repeal, launching a campaign on several fronts in July that included a boycott of Russian vodka.

In downtown St. Petersburg on Wednesday, hundreds of miles north of Sochi, about a dozen Russian gay rights activists protested the games. Two unfurled banners reading "Berlin 1936 = Sochi 2014," referring to the Olympic Games held in Nazi Germany. Single person protests are legal in Russia, and the two activists holding signs were spaced far enough apart that neither was arrested.

Protesters also gathered in Jerusalem, as the New York-based advocacy group All Out planned demonstrations there and in several other cities worldwide, including Rio de Janeiro, the site of the 2016 Summer Games.

Also Wednesday, a U.N. committee on children's rights urged Russia to repeal the law, saying it encourages discrimination and violence. A day earlier, AT&T Inc. called the law harmful to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and harmful to a diverse society.

"We support LGBT equality globally and we condemn violence, discrimination and harassment targeted against LGBT individuals everywhere," AT&T said in the post on its website.

AT&T said its statement was a reply to a request from the Human Rights Campaign, an advocacy group that supports the civil rights of LGBT people and has urged the International Olympic Committee's official sponsors to stand up for LGBT equality.

AT&T isn't an IOC sponsor, but is an official sponsor of the U.S. Olympic Committee and says it supports the campaign's principles. The telecommunications giant is the first major U.S. corporation to publicly condemn Russia's law, the Washington-based group said.

"Other sponsors that have failed to lead should take corrective action immediately," the campaign said in a post on its website. "A company that claims to support LGBT equality should do so wherever it operates, not just in the United States."

The issue has presented a challenge for athletes who may have personal views on the issue but are barred by IOC rules from making political remarks or demonstrations during the games.

U.S. gold-medalist snowboarder Hannah Teter backtracked Wednesday from an October interview saying she would support a Sochi boycott and perhaps speak out on the issue at the games.

"I said that a long time ago and definitely took it back," Teter said of comments she made to Time magazine. "I decided I want to represent the U.S. and show what snowboarding's all about."