Russian riot police arrest gays on Eurovision day

By Guy Faulconbridge

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Dozens of Russian riot police broke up a gay rights demonstration Saturday before the Eurovision Song Contest final in Moscow, grabbing protesters and throwing them into police cars and waiting vans.

Russian riot police trampled hedges at a hill overlooking central Moscow to arrest about 35 protesters when they unfurled banners calling for gay rights. Those arrested included Russian, Belarussian and British campaigners.

"There is no freedom for gays in Russia," British gay rights activist Peter Tatchell shouted as police bundled him away and pushed him into a waiting car. "We call on President (Dmitry) Medvedev to meet with us."

Riot police pushed scores of waiting reporters away as they arrested the gay and lesbian participants and threw them into waiting vans at the Sparrow Hills park near Moscow State University, which is popular with newly-weds.

Plain-clothes policemen briefly halted a convoy of cars with gay and lesbian protesters before the demonstration, according to a Reuters reporter travelling with the campaigners.

Gay activists in Russia say they are fighting for their constitutional rights in a deeply intolerant society and compare their plight to that of gays in Western Europe last century.

"The plight of gays in Russia now is similar to Britain in the 1970s except that the state authorities here are far more oppressive," Tatchell told Reuters before the protest.

The protest was timed to coincide with the contest, where singers from 42 European nations compete to win one of the continent's most lucrative and watched television events, to attract publicity to the fate of gays in Russia.

Russian nationalists had threatened "to cure" any homosexuals who tried to come onto the streets in Moscow and one gay man was hit several times by an anti-gay activist at a separate small gathering Saturday afternoon at Pushkin Square, down the road from the Kremlin.

The police detained about seven nationalist protesters at that meeting, a Reuters witness said.

President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin have so far made no comment on the gay protest but campaigners said they wanted to meet with the Kremlin chief to explain their problems.

"I am shocked by the violent way the riot police have broken up this meeting," said Irina Fyet, a 30-year-old PR worker, who tried to marry her female partner last week in Moscow. The registry office refused to allow the marriage.

"We can no longer be silent in Russia," she told reporters before being pulled into a police van by riot police in helmets. "We want the president to see how we are treated like dirt and common criminals. We want to meet the leaders."

Among those detained was Nikolai Alexeyev, one of the leaders of Russia's gay rights movement.

Alexeyev, dressed in a trim grey suit and tie, was detained by riot police while strolling with a man wearing a long white bridal grown. They said they were about to be married and asked why riot police wanted to arrest them.

"We have reason to believe you are walking with a man dressed as woman," one of the policemen told them, before a dozen riot police dragged them off to waiting vans.

The dress of Alexeyev's partner was partly ripped off as he struggled with police but he managed to fling a "wedding" bouquet of flowers to waiting officers.

Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov has taken a hard line against homosexual protesters, once describing a gay rights parade as "satanic." Luzhkov's spokesman had warned the gay protest could not go ahead because it would undermine morality in the capital.

(Writing by Michael Stott and Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Louise Ireland)

Article Published: 16/05/2009