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Putin Plans Pardon for Khodorkovsky; U.S. Envoy to Sochi Games; U.S. Ambassador on the Ground in CAR; Imagine a World

Aired December 19, 2013 - 14:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour.

President Vladimir Putin today has taken major steps to improve Russia's tarnished image ahead of the Winter Olympics in Sochi that start 50 days from now.

And in a move that surprised just about everyone, he said that he plans to pardon the jailed oligarch and opposite, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who's already served at least 10 years behind bars on politically motivated charges.

A slew of other amnesties -- high-profile ones at that -- have been announced, including for the protest punk group Pussy Riot and the Greenpeace activists who've been arrested in the Arctic Circle.

But the clouds of controversy still darken the skies over the Olympic Village. For the first time in more than a decade, neither the President of the United States, vice president or first lady will be attending the opening ceremonies and many European leaders are staying away as well.

In a clear sign of protest against Russia's increasingly anti-gay legal stance, two gay athletes will be part of the official U.S. delegation. One of them is tennis legend Billie Jean King. My exclusive interview with her in just a moment.

But first, more on all the extraordinary developments from the Kremlin today with CNN's Jill Dougherty, who joins me from Moscow.

Jill, thanks for being there. How big were the announcements today?

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: I think the one about Khodorkovsky was really huge. The way it was done, Christiane, was very different, because it came at the very end of a four-hour press conference by the president, subject never came up.

And then as he was exiting the hall, a Russian reporter went up to him, asked him about Khodorkovsky, and almost as an offhand comment, he said, "I'm going to give him a pardon."

So it caught everybody by surprise. And there's still some questions. Khodorkovsky's son, at this point, is telling CNN that he can't confirm it. So I think we have to stand by. It's significant that the president said that. But we have to see physically now realistically what happens.

AMANPOUR: Right. And of course apparently his term was meant to end in the summer anyway.

But let me ask you how much President Putin was trying, as I said, to clean up Russia's image and whether you think it's going to work.

DOUGHERTY: Well, I think it's interesting the way this happened, because you had three groups, in a way. You have Khodorkovsky; as you mentioned, the Pussy Riot girls and also the Greenpeace activists, all of whom are going to be freed on some sort of pardon or amnesty.

The Pussy Riot and Greenpeace people were part of that very big 25,000 people freed in an amnesty.

So Putin can say legally this was not personal. In fact, at the news conference, he said that, Christiane, this had nothing to do personally with him. It was part of an overall amnesty. So he has kind of legal cover to say that it wasn't political.

But when you put all the pieces together, it would appear that this timing, that it is an effort to, in a PR sense, make Russia look as if it's reasonable, that it's freeing some people who are very big issues on the human rights side of the equation.

AMANPOUR: And finally, the whole issue of this anti-propaganda law to minors, regarding what they call gay propaganda, has he been able to allay enough sort of outrage over that?

DOUGHERTY: Well, you know, I asked him about the values issue, because that's really what he's talking about. And at this news conference, he said, you know, we are for conservative values because we are opposed to people who want to force others to accept in essence the way they live. And that definitely sounds like a message about gay people.

So when you look at this law, I think one of the biggest issues is nobody really knows, either here or in the United States, or any other place, how precisely it might be carried out or enforced at the Olympics.

I think it's a very broadly written law and it -- President Putin says gay people, gay athletes are welcome; nothing will happen. You will not be discriminated against. But nobody can really say exactly what will happen. And remember, President Obama's official delegation has at least two, maybe even three now, gay people in it.

AMANPOUR: That's right. And we're going to turn to that right.

Jill, thank you so much from Moscow there.

Now as Jill just said, those anti-gay laws in Russia, banning, quote, "propaganda to minors" are so vague that anyone could be prosecuted for wearing a rainbow T-shirt or even holding hands with someone of the same sex.

And as Jill asked Putin today about it, he kept saying that he was just defending traditional Russian values from (INAUDIBLE).

Billie Jean King has not only triumphed on the tennis court; she has successfully brought equality to women in her own sport and ever since coming out herself, she has been an ardent activist for gay rights.

Mr. Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom and now he's named her to represent the United States at opening ceremonies at those Sochi Games. But as one prominent Russian actor threatened recently to burn them all when talking about gays and particularly about their being banned from donating organs after their death, I asked Billie Jean King what she thinks, whether this act of gay protest will accomplish anything.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) AMANPOUR: Billie Jean King, welcome. Welcome back to the program.

BILLIE JEAN KING, TENNIS PRO AND ACTIVIST: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

AMANPOUR: How did it come about? Were you surprised to be asked to be an official delegate for the U.S. team to the Olympics?

KING: Absolutely. But I thought when I was called from somebody in the government and they asked me, I thought, I would love to, because I've been going to Russia since 1962.

AMANPOUR: As a tennis player.

KING: As a player. And I love going to Russia. I love the people.

But going back as far as -- you know, going back to Russia, being part of the delegation, to the Winter Olympics, is amazing honor.

AMANPOUR: In fact, you tweeted, and we've got that tweet that we can remind everybody about what you tweeted, "Honored to represent the USA in Sochi and I hope these Olympics will be a watershed moment for the universal acceptance of all people."

And that is what this is all about. You've been sent as a gay delegate at a time when the Russian government has an anti-propaganda law about gay issues. They are against this whole issue.

What do you feel your political role, if I might say, is?

KING: Well, I'm very proud to go as an athlete and as a gay woman. I'm thrilled. I think that the outpouring of people getting in touch with me or tweeting, Facebook, it's been phenomenal. I had no idea --


AMANPOUR: What have they said? What do they hope that you'll do?

KING: They're hoping that we can help change the laws, really. I mean, culturally, I'm sure that the majority of Russians, I would hope, want each person to be able to be their true self as you go through a day.

Maybe they don't. Maybe President Putin is trying to get -- make people happy with maybe being conservative, small C, conservative people in Russia. I don't know. I'm sure that there's a political reason.

This is just an issue that has to be resolved, because what's happening is because bullying and hate, the hatred involved is becoming very, very prevalent now. And you can be really hateful and you can bully. You can kill others and get away with it now because of this, I think, ambiguous new law that says it's OK to really hurt us.


KING: -- and be imprisoned --

AMANPOUR: And it's been going on. We want to show a few pictures --

KING: It's really horrible.

AMANPOUR: -- two women who were kissing were then pushed violently to the ground and we have all these images.

There you go.

And there has been sort of an upsurge of attacks against openly gay people.

KING: They can.

AMANPOUR: So the question again is, what will you be doing? Do you know what your role will be?

KING: No, I have no idea as far as my role. But what I would do is, if I'm asked, I'm definitely going to give my opinion. But I hope we have lots of security at the same time.

I must say, there is a -- there is a part of me that will be very alert, very alert, because you just never know what's going to happen. But I just hope with the outpouring of the people throughout the world, will start to influence and hopefully if there's enough of public opinion, I would hope President Putin would change his mind.

AMANPOUR: He was asked about it in his major press conference in Moscow, and he goes on about defending Russian values and the difference between Russian values and Western values.

Does that even resonate with you in any way --

KING: Not really.

AMANPOUR: -- when he said that?

KING: When he said, I felt like, what are you, in the 18th century, 19th century or what?

The -- I think our values are excellent. In the rest of the world are the -- or the Western world, democracies are important, that each person can live their life and be a good citizen, pay their taxes, all that, don't break the law, they're creating laws that are just very intolerant to others.

And really what's important is that each person go through their day as their authentic self, to be true to their self, as long as they're a good citizen.

And it really upsets me. What about the gay parents, for instance, with their children? I think a lot of gay parents will leave Russia if they can. I would, because I would worry about my children, if I were a gay parent.

AMANPOUR: Some people have said that President Obama hasn't gone far enough, that nominating Billie Jean King, as big a world symbol as you are, is not enough, because he hasn't said that he's not going because of this.

Other world leaders haven't said that they're not going because of this.

Now others have written that actually, by sending you, it is a direct protest. It is a direct signal of protest by the United States and in fact, as one article in the SBN (ph) wrote, "civilized disobedience."

What do you think?

KING: I think if that President Obama feels this, but go ahead and say it, but I think he's sending a King instead of a president over there. I'm very happy to do whatever.

But I think it would be nice, I think, if other presidents of countries would say that that is -- if that is the reason, it would be nice if they say it.

AMANPOUR: The IOC has or says it will put respect for people's sexual orientation as part of their rules.

Is that -- is that right?

KING: They need to, yes, absolutely. You want protection, tolerance and hopefully celebration of differences. That's really what's important. And so, yes, I think the language protects. They should have it in there. Absolutely they should put it in there.

AMANPOUR: What about boycotts? Now a lot of Russians have said we don't want this to be boycotted because we, the gay community, will be blamed for destroying the Russian Olympics.

KING: I'm not real big on boycotting usually. It has to be absolutely a last resort. I think it's more important to go and be there and be involved and be committed to trying to help change and trying to let people also know if you're gay that you're not alone. If you're part of the LGBT community, you are not alone.

We are there, representing all of us, that we're going -- that's very important right now, because I know sometimes it must be really hard on them.

AMANPOUR: The IOC has said that gay athletes cannot officially protest or do anything political because that's against the Olympic rules.

Others have said, well, maybe they can do something, something positive, I don't know, kiss their partner in public or come out in public, if they win or something.

Have you had a chance to think about whether there would be any appropriate demonstration by a gay athlete at Sochi?

KING: Well, maybe it wouldn't be appropriate, but why not? I think they -- it's OK to say what you feel and think, as long as they're protected. But if you look back at the '68 Olympics with the fists and whatever, if there is something they want to --

AMANPOUR: The Black Power (INAUDIBLE) --

KING: -- wave rainbow flags or something, I don't know.

There's no reason, as long as we're not being malicious, but we can show our feelings, I think that's fine. I think it's OK. But by even being present and not boycotting sends a very positive message. We're here. We hope you'll think about it. We hope you'll change. And you're not alone.

AMANPOUR: Billie Jean King, thank you very much.

KING: Thanks a lot, Christiane. Go girl.



AMANPOUR: And after a break from one powerful to another woman of power, Samantha Power ,that is, as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, she is using her bully pulpit to try to prevent another genocide in Africa, this time in the Central African Republic.

The danger and the death toll of doing nothing when we come back.




AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program.

A mother forced to watch as fighters slit the throat of her 3-year-old son: this is just one gruesome example of the ethnic violence that's tearing apart the Central African Republic right now, according to Human Rights Watch. Their report was out today.

And another report from Amnesty International says the fighting between Christians and Muslims following a coup back in March amounts to, quote, "crimes against humanity." And today, the United States sent a message to the war-torn country. "We're watching."

Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, landed in the capital there this morning.

Since I met her in the 1990s when we were both journalists covering Bosnia, she's been a strong voice for intervention. Now that she's in a government position of power, I reached her by phone from Bangui just after she sent a stiff U.S. message about the carnage there to the interim president and other leading officials.


AMANPOUR: Ambassador Power, welcome to the program. Thanks for joining me.

SAMANTHA POWER, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO U.N.: Thank you for having me.

AMANPOUR: You've just been to see the interim president.

What did you tell him? What did he tell you about the terrible situation on the ground?

POWER: We delivered a very strong message to all the parties, but especially the transitional president, which is on the importance of abiding by the Libreville Accords, the N'Djamena Accords and the importance of having elections as planned by no later than February 2015.

We also stressed the importance of accountability -- Christiane, the atrocities here have been so horrific. And one can feel still, even though the situation is calming somewhat, palpable fear on the ground and palpable mistrust.

And as you know, the risk when there is, in a situation where individual responsibility is established, the risk is that whole communities are blamed.

AMANPOUR: I hear you saying and I think it's encouraging, you feel that the violence may be diminishing somewhat.

But Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have listed the most horrendous crimes, the macheting of individuals, the mass deportation, the execution-style murders of individuals. They're calling it -- some are calling it war crimes, crimes against humanity.

Samantha, you wrote the book on this, "A Problem from Hell." Do you agree that war crimes, crimes against humanity are being committed right now?

POWER: Well, let me just underscore how horrific the atrocities have been and give you just a couple examples. We met with one 20-year-old woman today, who watched her husband get stabbed to death right in front of her and then covered with kerosene and then lit on fire, literally burned to a crisp before her very eyes. This was last Thursday.

So when I say the situation is getting a little bit calmer, everything is relative. There is still lynching happening; there's still looting happening. What is happening is that the French and the African Union and some remnants of the Central African Republic forces themselves are moving out and gradually establishing patrols and so forth across the country.

But the fact that they are doing that does not detract from the fear that people feel nor from the anguish of having lost the people that they've already lost.

And I don't think we even yet, neither we, the governments nor organizations like Amnesty International yet even know the full scale of what has happened here in recent days, weeks and months; that will be a picture that emerges gradually.

But I certainly agree that what appear to be crimes against humanity have been committed; they've been committed not only by the so-called Seleka militia, but also by these Christian self-defense forces.

AMANPOUR: To that end, as we know, France has sent in 1,600 troops. There's a big African Union -- well, a relatively big African Union force of 6,000 or so; I spoke to the former French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, who, as you know, also cofounded Medecins sans Frontieres. This is what he told me about why France had intervened.


BERNARD KOUCHNER, FORMER FRENCH FOREIGN MINISTER: So were we supposed to let them die? We were facing an eventual or the beginning of a bloodbath and a souvenir of one that is present in Africa and present in Europe also.


AMANPOUR: What do you make of what he said, and particularly in view of the fact that your trip there raises huge expectations of a potential U.S. intervention, more than what's happening right now?

POWER: Well, first let me say that I agree with the former foreign minister, that it really could have descended very, very quickly into a bloodbath.

And so one of the reasons that we took this trip, that President Obama asked me to deploy here with my team, is to see how better we can support the African Union and the French, who have put their troops in harm's way, who are carrying out these patrols with this new and improved civilian protection mandate.

One of the things I did today is I had the privilege of greeting about 50 Burundian soldiers, who were just one of the many planeloads that the United States has ferreted into the Central African Republic. And they sort of burst off the plane, carrying their guns with their gear on, you know, seemingly ready to go.

And I talked to the Burundian commander, and he says that they come with a lot of political will to ensure that this country not go through the kind of violence that plagued Burundi back in the early 1990s and sporadically since.

So the political will of the troop contributors will prove very important here. But so will then having the right equipment and getting here in a timely fashion. And President Obama has made up to $100 million available in very tough budget times to try to ensure that those countries that are willing to send troops into the Central African Republic can get here quickly.

You mentioned that the African Union force has been expanded; it's now authorized at 6,000. But we're not near that troop ceiling yet. And again, the quicker those forces get here, the quicker they take up this more aggressive mandate, the sooner, hopefully, some of these tensions can be put back in the box.

And I should have said at the beginning, there is a long tradition of religious coexistence here. That's why the speed of the deployments is so important, the speed of the African and French deployments and then getting out in the countryside to offer protection, too, is important, so some of these genies can be put back in the bottle.

AMANPOUR: It sounds horribly familiar to what you know, Bernard Kouchner knows, I know, and that is what happened in Rwanda.

Is there any chance that a more robust U.N. peacekeeping force will go to the CAR as a Human Rights Watch and others are calling for?

Is there any chance that the United States would contribute to a peacekeeping mission there?

POWER: You know, one of the reasons that the president asked me to take the trip here is to assess the situation up front, to try to look ahead and see what will be needed.

The Africans here speak with great assurance of their ability once they are -- especially at full strength, to bring the situation under control. We recognize that they need reliable funding and logistics and support and so forth, so all of those issues will need to be worked through.

But I think, again, it's very important that we walk and chew gum at the same time, deal with the crisis at hand, build out these forces who are here and ensure that the secretary-general is planning in a fashion such that if there were a peace to keep and one could -- it was deemed necessary to bring in a peacekeeping mission, that we be in a position to do that more quickly than otherwise.

AMANPOUR: Ambassador Samantha Power, thank you very much indeed for joining me from Bangui there in the Central African Republic.

POWER: Thank you, Christiane.


AMANPOUR: And go to our website,, to hear what Ambassador Power had to say about whether the U.S. could do more to help the humanitarian situation in Syria, where so many millions of people are in desperate need right now.

And there is another tragic humanitarian crisis unfolding in Africa in South Sudan, where hundreds were killed in sectarian violence just this week.

But how to focus the world's attention on a new nation, one that didn't even appear on a map until two years ago?

American students, sadly, barely get a passing grade when it comes to geography. But as far as, you'll meet a 5-year-old exception. And he may just put that subject back on the map. That's when we come back.




AMANPOUR: And finally tonight, in this complex world of ours, a map is more than just a colorful travel guide. It is the vital blueprint to understanding nations and people who are often changing borders and allegiances.

But now imagine a world where reading and understanding maps is child's play. An American 5-year old, Arden Hayes, appeared earlier this year on a late-night comedy show in the U.S., and put even his host, Jimmy Kimmel to shame, because Arden knows where South Sudan is and isn't.


JIMMY KIMMEL, ABC HOST: Do you know every country in the world?

ARDEN HAYES, GEOGRAPHER: That map does not have South Sudan on it.

KIMMEL: That what?

HAYES: That does not have South Sudan on it.

KIMMEL: It's missing a country?



KIMMEL: Where should it be?

And that should be South Sudan?

HAYES: No, the blue country, like that, broke up into a southern half called South Sudan.

KIMMEL: Oh, I'm sorry; I didn't know. I -- you know what, I'm going to make sure someone gets fired over that.



AMANPOUR: Maybe it's the textbooks that need replacing or updating. According to recent results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the country's geography report card, less than a third of U.S. students know their maps and their meaning. Not so young Mr. Hayes.


HAYES: This one.


HAYES: It broke up into seven countries.

KIMMEL: Yes. What country was it originally?

HAYES: Yugoslavia.

KIMMEL: And now what countries is Yugoslavia?

HAYES: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Macedonia. Sometimes I get confused with Kosovo and Montenegro.




AMANPOUR: Impressive stuff for a 5-year old or a 50-year old and there's another challenge coming at all of us.

Today, the European Space Agency launched the Gaia Space telescope, as this artist's rendering shows. Its mission is to create a 3-dimensional map of our entire galaxy. Good luck with that.

And that's it for our program tonight. Remember you can always contact us at our website,, and follow me on Twitter and Facebook. Thanks for watching and goodbye from New York.