Winter Olympics 2014: Gay Russian's asylum call leaves Italy's premier red faced in Sochi

As other Western premiers boycott the Games in protest at Russia's treatment of gays, Italy keeps an eye on business
  • @michael2day

A gay man from Russia has requested political asylum in Italy – only hours after the Prime Minister, Enrico Letta, was condemned by colleagues and human rights campaigners for being the only leader of a major Western country to attend the controversial Sochi Winter Olympics.

The 25-year-old, who has suffered physical attacks and been fired from work four times on account of his sexuality, said he feared for his life if he was made to return to his home country. Meanwhile, authorities in Russia have already blocked his bank accounts. The man, who used the name "Vladimir", said he was seeking to meet the Italian premier.

The development will be acutely embarrassing for Mr Letta, who this week came under fire from members of his own centre-left Democratic Party (PD) for attending the Games. Before departing for Sochi, Mr Letta said that he would press the Russian authorities on gay rights.

"At Sochi, I will reiterate Italy's opposition to any discriminatory norm against gays, inside or outside sports," he said. Nonetheless, a group of five PD senators, Isabella De Monte, Nadia Ginetti, Mario Morgoni, Claudio Moscardelli and Francesco Scalia, urged him to boycott the trip.

And the Italian press said, however, that Mr Letta's enthusiasm to firm up multibillion-pound energy deals with the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, meant that any criticism was likely to be muted. La Stampa noted that Mr Putin had employed his "petro-roubles to seduce Rome". Italy is Russia's fourth largest trading partner, with commercial exchanges worth over £35bn a year.

Two MPs from the left-wing SEL party, Ileana Piazzoni and Alessandro Zan, called on the Prime Minister "to reconsider, and for once put the interests of those who are discriminated against and persecuted above the economic and financial interests that come from relations with a totalitarian leader like Putin".

Other Western G8 leaders, including Barack Obama and David Cameron, are thought to have stayed away from Sochi in protest at repressive laws, including a ban distributing "propaganda for non-traditional sexual relations", which campaigners say fosters a climate of hatred against sexual minorities.

On Friday, a coalition of 40 human-rights and gay-rights groups from the US, Western Europe and Russia – including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch – released an open letter to the 10 biggest Olympic sponsors, urging them to denounce the law and to run ads promoting equality for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people.

The young Russian asylum-seeker told Corriere della Sera how he had been forced out of university courses, kicked out of work and told by the police that "you can die for all we care" after being set upon by a gang of neo-Nazis. "I would like to tell him how the gays live in Russia. When he returns from Sochi, I would like to meet him," Vladimir said of his desire to meet Mr Letta.

He decided to seek asylum when his tourist visa expired.

A report in the current edition of the weekly news magazine L'Espresso said there are now 445 virulently homophonic groups active in Russia that encourage discrimination and/or violence against lesbians and gays, adding to the impression of a politically organised witchhunt. These groups are reported to have more than 200,000 followers.

But campaigners said the call for asylum by the young Russian has also focused attention on Italy's dubious record on civil rights for gays. Much of the mainstream Italian press is active in pressing for basic civil rights for lesbians and gays, despite the failure of supposedly liberal politicians such as Mr Letta to make any concessions.

Meanwhile, unease at Italy's closeness to the Putin regime has been building for several months. In November, Vladimir Luxuria, Italy's first transgender MP, said: "There's a cold and violent wind coming from the East, a wind of repression and silence for human rights." She was speaking as Mr Letta signed more than 20 major deals with Mr Putin at a series of meetings in Trieste.

Previous Italian governments, particularly those led by convicted tax fraudster Silvio Berlusconi, have also done big business with Mr Putin. In 2010, WikiLeaks revealed how a former US ambassador to Rome believed Mr Putin had bought the political compliance of Berlusconi by allowing the mogul-leader a lucrative cut from major energy deals.