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Putin signals gay rights debate must not cloud Games

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers his speech at the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Gala Dinner at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olymp
Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers his speech at the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Gala Dinner at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olymp

By Alexei Anishchuk

SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin made clear on Friday that he believed the Sochi Winter Olympics were not the place to debate Russia's treatment of gays.

Putin used a meeting with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, whose country has criticized Russia on gay rights, to underline the message that politics and sport should not be mixed.

"I know you always give much attention to humanitarian issues and adherence to human rights," Putin told Rutte in Sochi, shortly before the Games opening ceremony. "We are always open to discussion."

But the Russian leader added that he had seen a television report in which he said a man in a gay club in the Black Sea resort told journalists: "Leave us alone. Sport is sport. The Olympics are the Olympics. Let's focus."

"The less aggression there is over (gay rights) from both sides, the better," he quoted the person as saying.

"I second the assessment that this person made in every way," Putin said.

The Sochi Games are vital to Putin's legacy and he has staked his personal and political reputation on their success, but he faces an outcry abroad over a law banning the spread of "gay propaganda" among minors.

Putin says the law is needed to defend young people. Critics say it curtails the rights of homosexuals, and gay rights activists say it is fuelling anti-gay violence in Russia.

Putin says Russia does not discriminate against homosexuals and will not do so during the Olympics, but he was booed on a trip to the Netherlands last year.

U.S. President Barack Obama, French President Francois Hollande, British Prime Minister David Cameron and German President Joachim Gauck are not attending the Games, and the U.S. delegation includes openly gay representatives.

Rutte decided to attend the Games despite a petition signed by 38,000 people protesting against the high-level Dutch delegation, which includes King Willem-Alexander, and in spite of boycott calls by Dutch gay rights defenders.

Rutte said last month that his country had concerns about the humans rights situation in Russia but that it was better to engage in dialogue than stage a boycott.

His visit follows a difficult year in relations with Russia, including the assault of a Dutch diplomat in Moscow by attackers who scrawled the letters LGBT - standing for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender - in pink lipstick on his hall mirror.

(Writing by Steve Gutterman, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

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