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Tension lingers in Sochi following security scare and crackdown on dissent

Interior Ministry members detain a gay rights activist attempting to hold a protest rally in Red Square near the Kremlin in central Moscow, Feb. 7, 2014. Russian police detained gay rights activists who tried to protest on Moscow's Red Square and in St Petersburg on Friday, shortly before Vladimir Putin opened the Sochi Winter Olympics, gay rights activists said.


Russian President Vladimir Putin got the moment he wanted Friday. The opening ceremonies of the Sochi Olympics passed in spectacular fashion, nagged only by a few minor technical issues. Most of the country applauded the moment, and their president.

But outside Sochi's Fisht Stadium, the start of the Winter Games was marked by a security scare, and a crackdown on dissent.

Just after the opening ceremonies got underway, a passenger tried to hijack a Turkish plane that took off from the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. Claiming he was in possession of a bomb, the passenger – who has not been identified, but was photographed wearing a Montreal Canadiens jersey with Saku Koivu's old No. 11 on the back – demanded that the Pegasus Airlines plane be flown to Sochi.

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Pilots fooled the hijacker, and the plane's 110 passengers, by telling them the plane had landed in Sochi when it had actually touched down at Istabul's Sabiha Gokcen airport. Once on the ground, the would-be hijacker, agreed to release women, children and elderly passengers. Other passengers joined the evacuation, however, and the plane was seized by Turkish special forces troops.

They apprehended a 45-year-old Ukrainian national, who was in possession of a suitcase stuffed with electronic equipment, but no explosives. Two Turkish F-16 fighter jets were scrambled during the incident to escort the plane to Istanbul.

Ukrainian officials said on Saturday that they had opened a terrorism investigation into the case. The head of Ukraine's Security Services investigative department, Maxim Lenko, told reporters in Kiev that the suspect – who was described as being "in an advanced state of drunkenness" during the incident -- had been motivated by personal dislike for Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and Mr. Putin, who has backed Mr. Yanukovych throughout Ukraine's three-month-old political crisis.

Mr. Yanukovych was in attendance at Friday's opening ceremony, and had a private meeting with Mr. Putin before returning to Kiev on Saturday. Details of the meeting were not made public.

Many athletes and spectators were openly jittery about coming to Sochi, which sits only a few hundred kilometres from the low-intensity war zone of Russia's North Caucasus. Islamist militants based in the nearby republics of Chechnya and Dagestan have threatened to attack the Games.

The ceremony in Sochi also coincided with the arrests of at least 60 people around Russia, including 19 demonstrators who gathered near Red Square in Moscow to protest the Kremlin's rollback of gay rights, as well as perceived corruption during the construction of the Sochi Olympic sites. Some of those arrested were reportedly foreigners. Four other gay rights activists were arrested in St. Petersburg.

Another 37 people were arrested after a short-lived protest by ethnic Circassians in the southern city of Nalchik. They were trying to draw attention to Sochi's history as a Circassian city before a 19th Century ethnic cleansing drove them out. Photographs posted online showed a motorcade of eight cars – each flying a black flag reading "Sochi, land of genocide" – surrounded by police after a protest that witnesses say lasted only a few minutes.

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Emile Affolter, an Amnesty International spokesman currently in Sochi, said the arrests were part of a crackdown on dissent that began in May 2012 when Mr. Putin returned to the Kremlin amid mass protests.

"This is typical of the Russian regime and how it has functioned for the past year and a half since Mr. Putin returned to power. If this happening during the Olympics, what we're afraid of is what will happen after the Games to people who have spoken out."

Mr. Affolter said Amnesty International was particularly concerned about the treatment of Sochi residents who had spoken out publicly against the Olympics. At least two prominent Sochi activists were jailed just before the Games, including environmentalist Yevgeny Vitishko, who was sentenced to 15 days of "administrative detention" for swearing at a bus stop.

Several human-rights activists and opposition politicians have also complained that they have been prevented from attending the Olympics, even though they had already paid for event tickets.

"It's because of my work in the defense of civil rights and human rights," Semyon Simonov, a Sochi-based immigrants-rights activist, sighed in a telphone interview. He said Russia's security services had blocked him from receiving the "fan passport" necessary to attend the Games. He had planned to watch a hockey game.

"Certainly they fear protests, but I wasn't planning one. It is very strange."

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About the Author
Senior International Correspondent

Mark MacKinnon is currently based in London, where he is The Globe and Mail's Senior International Correspondent. In that posting he has reported on the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic State, the war in eastern Ukraine and Scotland's independence referendum.Mark recently spent five years as the newspaper's Beijing correspondent. More


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