Russian President Vladimir Putin and International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach walk out of a commuter train at the newly built railway station “Adler” in Sochi, Russia on October 28, 2013.

© 2013 Reuters

(Moscow) – With just 100 days before the opening ceremonies of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has a key opportunity to speak out about abuses linked to Russia’s preparations for the Games.

The IOC should also call on Russia to repeal a law that discriminates against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, Human Rights Watch said.

Newly elected IOC President Thomas Bach is in Sochi to attend the IOC’s World Conference on Sport and Environment, to be held October 30 to November 1, 2013. It is his first visit to Russia as the new IOC leader, and Russian authorities are likely to be watching for his willingness to defend Olympic principles and basic human rights. Bach met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on October 28.

“With the Sochi Games now 100 days away, time is running out for the IOC and President Bach to urge Russia to clean up its abusive laws and practices,” said Jane Buchanan, associate director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch. “There can be no grand celebration of the upcoming Games when Russia has so blatantly trampled the Olympic principles of human dignity and nondiscrimination.”

Russia will host the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in the Black Sea resort town of Sochi from February 7-23, 2014. It will host the Winter Paralympic Games from March 7-16, also in Sochi.

Human Rights Watch has documented human rights abuses linked to Russia’s preparations for the Games since 2009, including:

  • Exploitationof construction workers, including migrant workers, engaged on Olympic venues and mass illegal detentionsand illegal deportations of workers;
  • Evictionsof some homeownersand their families without proper, or in some cases any, compensation and failure to compensate or provide reasonable alternative accommodations to people whose houses and property have been damaged or compromised by Olympic construction; and
  • Harassmentof journalists and civil society activists criticizing the government’s policies in Sochi, including its preparations for the Games.

On October 18, 2013, a construction worker engaged in building the Main Media Center sewed his mouth shut to protest his employer’s failure to pay his wages and the authorities’ failure to resolve the issue. After the intervention of human rights activists and media attention, the employer paid the worker, and numerous others on the construction site received wages owed to them.

The Main Media Center complex will be a hub for thousands of journalists visiting Sochi to cover the Games and includes a broadcast center, journalists’ work stations, conference rooms, hotel facilities, restaurants, and the like.

Human Rights Watch documentedseveral cases in 2012 in which a subcontracting construction company on the Main Media Center complex site failed to pay workers’ wages, refused to provide employment contracts, and retaliated against workers who complained by kicking them out of their employer-provided dorm.

Migrant Workers’ Rights Trampled
Since early September 2013 the Sochi authorities have rounded up thousands of migrant workers and others for suspected immigration or employment law violations. Most appear to have been targeted for their non-Slavic appearance. Police have held many of them in inhuman conditions, including in a garage in the courtyard of Sochi’s central district police station, and in some cases denied them access to lawyers. Authorities have also deportedhundreds of workers, in some cases without allowing them to appeal their expulsions or access a lawyer.

“These Olympic Games could not happen without tens of thousands of migrant workers from within and beyond Russia toiling long hours and in often exploitative conditions to build the essential venues, hotels, roads, transportation hubs, and other infrastructure,” Buchanan said. “Yet the employers responsible for key Olympic venues have gotten away with abusive practices, including cheating workers out of wages, sometimes for many months.”

All workers on Olympic venues should receive their full wages and not suffer retaliation for filing complaints, said Human Rights Watch.

Not Reassuring “Assurances”
In June 2013 the Russian Duma passed a lawbanning dissemination among children of any information “promoting” “non-traditional sexual relationships” and providing a “distorted notion of social equivalence of traditional and nontraditional sexual relationships.” The ban applies to the press, television, radio, and the Internet. Although the law does not define “non-traditional,” it is widely understood to mean lesbian, gay, and bisexual relationships.

The IOC has sought “assurances” from the Russian government that the anti-LGBT propaganda law will not be used against those participating in or visiting for the Games. At the same time, senior Russian government officials have stated that the law is not discriminatory and will be implemented without exception, including during the Sochi Olympics.

The IOC has refused to call on Russia to repeal the law, despite the fact that the Olympic Charter’s principle 6 states, “Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.”

The Charter does not confine nondiscrimination principles to the period of the Olympic Games alone.

On October 27 three LGBT rights activists in St. Petersburg were taken to a police station after waving rainbow flags as the Olympic Torch traveled through the city on its 123-day relayacross Russia before the Olympic opening ceremonies on February 7, 2014. The activists were asked to provide written explanations of their conduct, but as of October 29, no charges have been brought against them.

“The Sochi Olympics risk being remembered as the anti-gay Games, unless the IOC is willing to stand up and defend the principles of its own Olympic Charter,” Buchanan said. “There is still a chance for Sochi to go down in history as the Games that established that there is no place for discrimination in the Olympic Movement.”