Obama Meets With Human Rights Activists In Russia

President Obama, in St. Petersburg for the G-20 Summit, met with Russian human rights activists, most of them critical of President Putin's policies. Especially prominent right now is Russia's LGBT community, which is facing harsh new laws that play into homophobia and raise doubts about LGBT participation in the Sochi Winter Olympics next year.

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At that G-20 Summit, President Obama will not meet privately with President Putin, but he has scheduled a meeting tomorrow with Russian civil society activists to discuss human rights issues. Any criticism of Russia's human rights record raises hard feeling with the Kremlin, and the U.S. has been especially critical of a new law that affects Russia's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community. An LGBT activist has been invited to meet the president, and supporters say they welcome the opportunity even if it brings harsher scrutiny from Russian authorities. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from St. Petersburg.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Russia's new national law bans giving information about non-traditional sexual relationships to people under the age of 18. Supporters of the law, such as St. Petersburg city lawmaker Vitaly Milonov, say it doesn't ban homosexual activity among consenting adults.

VITALY MILONOV: Actually, this law is not about sodomists. This law is about kids. And one of the harmful information for the kid could be also a sexual information.

FLINTOFF: In a recent interview with state-run television, President Putin also addressed the issue, denying that there are any laws discriminating against homosexuals in Russia.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking in foreign language)

FLINTOFF: Putin uses the expression non-traditional sexual orientation, which has become a blanket phrase that's understood to mean LGBT sexuality. Innokenty Grekov with Human Rights First has written a report on the effect of the law in Russia. He notes that, in principle, LGBT people gained legal equality when homosexuality was decriminalized in Russia in 1993. But he says that, in practice, the community continues to face intolerance and violence and that the community's position will be further undermined by the new law.

Because the law doesn't define what constitutes propaganda about nontraditional sexual practices, Grekov says, it invites abuse and can be used by the authorities as a tool to harass almost anyone. He notes that Putin defended the law in his recent interview.

INNOKENTY GREKOV: And yet, on the question of, you know, what does it mean to engage in propaganda, he avoided the issue because there's no legal understanding of this concept.

FLINTOFF: Grekov says that Putin's owns government actually rejected three previous attempts to pass similar laws, the last time in 2006. Among other reasons for its rejection, the government pointed out that it would be a violation of Russia's criminal code to ban information about a noncriminal act. Grekov says the government accepted the latest version of the law as part of a package of measures designed to stifle dissent. Some analysts say there's a danger for civil society activists in accepting a meeting with President Obama. A meeting with the U.S. president could be used against the activists as a sign that they really are under American influence.

But activists at Coming Out, an LGBT rights group in St. Petersburg, say it's important to gain international attention for their cause. Project coordinator Sasha Semenova says global scrutiny forced President Putin to acknowledge that there is an issue in his recent interview.

SASHA SEMENOVA: So apparently, he feels obligated to answer these questions. He can ignore the questions from his own people, but sometimes he cannot ignore the questions for all the international politics.

FLINTOFF: Obama's meeting with civil society representatives has been scheduled for late on Friday. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, St. Petersburg.

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