Chancellor Angela Merkel has used her first official visit to Russia since its annexation of Crimea to condemn persecution of gays in Chechnya.
After talks in Sochi, discussing tensions over the war in Syria and the stand-off in eastern Ukraine, the German leader flagged reports that 100 men had been detained or disappeared in Chechnya on suspicion of being gay, and that some of them had been killed.
“We’ve heard some very negative reports about how homosexuals are treated in Chechnya, and I asked Mr Putin to use his influence to ensure the rights of such minorities,” Dr Merkel told reporters after the meeting.
A Chechen government spokesman has called the allegations of a crackdown “an absolute lie”, and denied that gay men exist in the semi-autonomous republic.
The German leader also stressed the importance of civil rights to Mr Putin, including the right to demonstrate and the right for NGOs to operate freely – a nod to a clampdown on public protest and NGOs that criticise the Kremlin or that receive foreign funding.
The Russian leader, asked about acid attacks on his main political opponent Alexey Navalny, said victims had access to the justice system.
“The law enforcement agencies in Russia are acting in a much more mitigated way than many of our partners in western Europe,” he said at his summer residence in Sochi on the Black Sea coast.
There was little progress on the big issues. On Ukraine, the German leader said she and her Russia counterpart remained “at odds over the cause of the conflict”.
Neither Dr Merkel nor Mr Putin addressed the EU’s ongoing sanctions against Russia – due to expire in the summer – but both said they were committed to the
agreement. “Our objective is that Ukraine will get access to its own border, but before that, a ceasefire then a political solution should be found,” said Dr Merkel. “We need implementation and [some] sides need to step up.”
With Berlin and Moscow on opposite sides of the Syrian conflict, Mr Putin said a solution to the Syrian standoff could only come at the United Nations, where Moscow has blocked resolutions in the Security Council.
"We condemn every use of chemical weapons . . . those responsible for the death of innocent Syrians must be found and punished," said Mr Putin on the recent attacks the Syrian president blames on rebel groups, while the US, France and others blame government forces.
Though Tuesday’s meeting represented a minor diplomatic thaw between the two countries, Sochi carries unhappy memories for the German leader. A decade ago Mr Putin was accused of trying to intimidate the dog-shy German leader by bringing his black Labrador, Koni, into their bilateral meeting.
There was no dog this time, and instead Mr Putin praised how he was able to negotiate with Dr Merkel “in a professional atmosphere . . . the prosperity and peace of our peoples”.