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6 Better Reasons Than Snowden to Boycott the Sochi Olympics

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham surprised many on Capitol Hill this week by suggesting that the U.S. should boycott the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi if Russia grants asylum to fugitive former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. "It might help, because what they're doing is outrageous," Graham told The Hill. "We certainly haven't reset our relationship with Russia in a positive way. At the end of the day, if they grant this guy asylum it's a breach of the rule of law as we know it and is a slap in the face to the United States." 

First of all, this is not a good idea. The last time the U.S. boycotted an Olympics -- 1980 in Moscow -- it didn't accomplish much besides giving the Soviets a propaganda victory and setting the stage for a retaliatory boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Games. It's hard to imagine a Sochi boycott would be much more effective -- and given the amount of money U.S. companies have invested in the event, it's hard to imagine this actually happening. (Even staunch Russia hawk John McCain didn't seem too impressed by the idea, saying, "I think the experience of canceling the Olympics the last time around wasn’t very good.")

 

But if the U.S. were to sit out the games, one beleaguered whistleblower seems like a bit of an insignificant basis for doing so. For the sake of argument, if America is going to start playing the boycott game, recent Russian policies have provided much better reasons to do so:  

1. Crackdowns on opposition

Blogger and opposition leader Alexey Navalny's five-year prison sentence for what are widely viewed as trumped-up embezzlement charges is just the latest example of the Russian government's crackdown on high-profile opposition figures, which has also included the harsh sentences given to the punk group Pussy Riot, and the macabre campaign against lawyer and whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky, who was convicted of tax evasion this month four years after he died in prison under mysterious circumstances.

2. Restrictions on NGOs

President Vladimir Putin signed a law into effect last summer branding NGOs that receive foreign funding as "foreign agents" and placing further restrictions on their activities. The government has used the law to expel the U.S. Agency for International Development and suspend the election monitoring group Golos, which had publicized evidence of fraud in the 2011 parliamentary elections, sparking protests.

3. Human rights abuses in the North Caucasus

Just across the Caucasus from where the Games will be held, an Islamist insurgency continues to simmer in the republics of Ingushetia and Dagestan. According to Human Rights Watch, Russia's counterinsurgency campaign has included "torture, abduction-style detentions, enforced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings." The murders of numerous human rights activists -- including Natalya Estimirova of the group Memorial -- remain unsolved.

4. Support for Bashar al-Assad

It's estimated that 10 percent of Russia's global arms sales go to Syria, with current contracts worth about $1.5 billion dollars. Even as international criticism of Bashar al-Assad's regime has grown over the last two years of civil war, Moscow has continued providing military support including air defense systems to Damascus. Along with China, Russia has repeatedly blocked sanctions against Syria at the U.N. Security Council.

5. Gay rights

As the U.S., Britain and other countries have taken major steps toward legal protections for gay rights, Russia has moved in the opposite direction, instituting fines for the "propagation" of homosexuality. Moscow's city council last year banned gay pride marches for the next 100 years. Gay rights groups and the International Olympic Committee have expressed concern over whether the new laws could affect gay athletes and fans at the Olympics.   

6. The U.S. adoption ban

In January 2013, a new law went into effect banning the adoption of Russian children by U.S. families. While there had been isolated cases of adopted children being abused or neglected -- including Dima Yakovlev, for whom the legislation was named, who died after being left in a hot car by his adopted father in 2008 -- the law was widely seen as retaliation for the Magnitsky Act, a U.S. bill placing sanctions on officials linked to the late lawyer's death. The Russian law stranded more than 330 families who were already in the process of adopting children, many of them with special needs. There are more than 300,000 orphans living in 3,000 facilities throughout Russia, and the recent death of a girl with Down syndrome who had been due to be adopted but died in an orphanage in Nizhny Novgorod in May has galvanized opponents of the ban.

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Would any of these problems be solved by a U.S. boycott of the Olympics? Almost certainly not. But at the very least they will still be pertinent in the winter of 2014, when Snowden's 15 minutes of fame will likely be long over. 

AFP/Getty Images

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The Harshest Critic of Egypt's Liberal Protesters Is One of Their Own

Egypt's liberals have a powerful, outspoken new critic, and he's one of their own: "My dear anti-Brotherhood liberal, allow me to remind you that just a few weeks ago you were desperately complaining about how grim the future looked, but now that you have been 'relieved' of them you have become a carbon copy of their fascism and discrimination," the critic appealed in Egypt's al-Shorouk newspaper.

That critic? It's Bassem Youssef, the popular satirist whose TV show, al-Bernameg ("The Program"), is an incisive Egyptian version of The Daily Show.

Youssef had more reason than most to be wary of Mohamed Morsy's government. After months of legal challenges, he was arrested in March and questioned to determine if he should face a court case for supposedly insulting Islam and Morsy. He's been a persistent critic of the government. In his weekly column for al-Shorouk the day before the military coup, he voiced his support for the nationwide Tamarod protests. The next day, he took to Twitter in English, telling the Muslim Brotherhood, in referance to the organization's @IkhwanWeb feed, "not only you can tweet in English."

Youssef didn't air his show after the coup, tweeting, "There will be no episode this week, this is a no-laughing matter," but he kept writing. On July 9, his column (translated here for Al Arabiya) speculated that the coup staved off an oppressive crackdown. "We can imagine what could have happened if President Mohammed Mursi stayed in his post," he wrote. "In this parallel world, the decision to shut down private channels was going to be implemented, political and media figures were going to be arrested and accusations of high treason and plans to change the regime were going to be made against prominent politicians."

Defending the shuttering of some news stations broadcasting coverage sympathetic to the Morsy government, he acknowledged that, "Yes, in a perfect world, shutting down channels and isolating leaderships is wrong and a violation of freedoms. But, my dear, you were not living in a perfect world. To those who dream of co-existence, how do you co-exist with he who wants to raise arms in your face and with he who considers killing you and imprisoning you or shutting down your media outlet as a victory for Islam?... My dear reader, in the parallel world, you won't read this article because its writer will either be imprisoned or killed."

This commentary makes Youssef's latest op-ed all the more striking. In his column for al-Shorouk on Tuesday (translated here by Tahrir Squared), he calls for the reopening of TV channels closed by the Egyptian military in the coup. "I do believe that shutting down the Islamist channels [last week] was an important decision during a sensitive period," he writes, "but I'm now calling for their return.... Do not give them the chance to play the victim. What are you afraid of? Of their discriminatory media rhetoric? Or of their public political stupidity?"

Many of Egypt's liberals "are on a 'victory high' -- or so they imagine themselves to be," he writes. "The fascist nature of those people is no different than that of the Islamists who think that their enemies' disappearance off this planet would be a victory for the religion of God. But those on this 'victory high' consider themselves to be different; they justify their fascism for the 'good of the country.' ... We have replaced the 'enemies of Islam' scarecrow with the 'enemies of the state' scarecrow."

Political moderation, Youssef writes, has become an island populated by "those isolated few, their voices fading in the midst of the roaring cries for vengeance and murder." It's a bleak portrait of Egypt's hyper-polarized politics, but Youssef worries it could get worse, concluding, "maybe in the future people will migrate to [the island] and try to get to know this thing called humanity that we've all been stripped of. What I fear most is if a time comes when we pass by that island and cry in dismay: 'Alas, nobody lives there anymore.'"

GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images