Sunday, May 17, 2009

MOSCOW | Riot police broke up several gay-rights demonstrations in Moscow on Saturday, hauling away scores of protesters hours before the capital hosted a major international pop music competition.

Activists had targeted Moscow, which was holding the finals of the Eurovision song contest, hoping to use the event’s global popularity to draw attention to their claims that Russia officially sanctions homophobia.

Led by a mayor who describes homosexuality as “satanic,” city officials had warned they would not tolerate marches or rallies supporting the rights of gays and lesbians.

Among those detained were British activist Peter Tatchell and American activist Andy Thayer of Chicago, co-founder of the Gay Liberation Network.

No injuries were reported. Most of the arrests took place at a hastily organized protest near Moscow State University in southwest Moscow.

“This shows the Russian people are not free!” Mr. Tatchell yelled as he was being dragged to a police car. He was released a short time later.

Decades of official persecution of Russian gays ended in 1993 with the decriminalization of homosexuality, but opposition to gay rights remains widespread.

Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov sought to justify official discrimination against gay people in Russia by saying they help spread AIDS.

City authorities had barred Saturday’s rally.

Police said 40 people were detained, but media reports said up to 80 were seized. None of the protests in central Moscow took place near the capital’s Olimpiysky Sports Complex, where the Eurovision concert was being held Saturday night.

The live contest, which pits finalists from 24 nations against each other, has drawn up to 100 million television viewers previously and is Europe’s most prestigious pop song competition.

At a sanctioned rally near the Kremlin, about 50 demonstrators from nationalist and Orthodox Christian organizations denounced homosexuality. One man was detained when he claimed officials in the Kremlin were gay.

There are no official estimates of how many gays and lesbians live in Russia, and only a few big cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg have gay nightclubs and gyms. Several gay couples have attempted unsuccessfully to wed since the mid-1990s. Last week a lesbian couple were denied their application for a marriage license.

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