By Nick Butler

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has played down the persecution of gay rights in Russia ©AFP/Getty ImagesJanuary 23 - Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has downplayed the nature of controversial anti-gay rights laws and described it as an issue "invented abroad" which is "non-existent" in his country.

A law banning the "propoganda of non-traditional sexual relations" was introduced into the Duma - the Lower House of Russian Parliament - last year and has since provoked widespread international condemnation.

Although no countries have seriously considered a full boycott, many leaders deciding not to attend include United States President Barrack Obama - with the American delegation to be led by three openly gay figures in former tennis player Billie Jean King, two-time Olympic ice hockey medallist Caitlin Cahow, and ex-Olympic skating champion Brian Boitano.

In a wide-ranging interview in which he also spoke about security concerns and the ever-escalating cost of the Games to be held next month, Medvedev provided perhaps the strongest official rebuttal to the gay rights criticism so far.

Both Dmitry Medvedev and President Vladimir Putin have attemped to alleviate international fears over the gay rights laws ©Getty ImagesBoth Dmitry Medvedev and President Vladimir Putin have attempted to alleviate international fears over the gay rights laws ©Getty Images

"If you are referring to the situation surrounding the law on the propaganda of so-called 'non-traditional values', I believe that only a negligible part of the Russian population is actually concerned about this - that's my first point," Medvedev told CNN.

"Second, so far I have heard virtually nothing about this law actually being applied in practice - there is a lot of talk, but the law has not been applied anywhere.

"Third, unlike many countries where this kind of sexual relationship is banned, in Russia it isn't.

"Therefore, I think all this talk has little to do with what's actually happening in Russia or with the rights of sexual minorities in Russia .

"I haven't heard of a single representative of Russia's sexual minorities complaining, not even on the internet, about their rights being abused.

"And yet this caused an uproar outside Russia - so I think this is an artificial problem.

"If we find out that the rights of some group are being abused, no matter which group, we will certainly sit down and amend our legislation to stop this.

"But at this point, there are absolutely no problems with the law you are talking about".

Medvedev claimed Russian law "fully guarantees freedom of expression", and that people are free to express their opinions on the internet about the Government, the President, the Prime Minister or anyone else."

There have been anti gay rights protests in Russia, as well as in the rest of the world, following the laws introduced last year ©AFP/Getty ImagesThere have been anti gay rights protests in Russia, as well as in the rest of the world, following the laws introduced last year ©AFP/Getty Images

Although Medvedev said he was not aware of any cases of the new law being used in practice, at least three gay activists have reportedly been found guilty of promoting non-traditional relationships and ordered to pay fines since the law was introduced last June.

After admitting last month a successful Winter Olympic Games in Sochi is "not guaranteed", Medvedev's reassurances can be taken as a further attempt to alleviate international criticism ahead of the Games getting underway.

This follows the words of President Vladimir Putin when he said last week that gay people should feel at ease in Sochi, but should also "leave children in peace".

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) have repeatedly played down the prospects of gay rights issues overshadowing the Games but have introduced designated "protest zones" where dissent can be made.

In an unprecedented step they have also changed Rule 50 of the IOC Charter - which had read that "no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted" - to allow athletes and officials to participate in these designated zones. 

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