Moscow gays hold first unimpeded rights protest

MOSCOW, Oct 1 (Reuters) - A small group of activists held the first gay rights demonstration in Moscow without hindrance from city authorities on Friday, saying there had been a change of policy since the dismissal of Mayor Yuri Luzhkov.

Luzhkov, an opponent of gay rights, was sacked after 18 years in office on Tuesday by President Dmitry Medvedev.

About 10 activists took part in the rally, which they hailed as a victory for gay rights after years of confrontation, mostly over annual efforts to hold a gay pride parade in May like those elsewhere in Europe.

“As soon as Luzhkov left, the policy changed. I am sure the new mayor will finally allow us to rally,” Nikolai Alexeyev, Russia’s leading gay rights activist and head of the Moscow Gay Pride organisation, told reporters.

About dozen hooded young men described by the activists as neo-Nazis fired water pistols at Alexeyev and others. Two of the assailants were arrested.

Homosexuality was decriminalised in Russia in 1993, much of Moscow’s gay scene is still largely underground and the gay community has been prevented from holding rallies in the city.

For years, city authorities denied gay rights activists permission to hold demonstrations, which officials say is required, and demonstrators were sometimes beaten by police. Gay rallies are often met with hostility from far-right groups as well as the Russian Orthodox Church. Luzhkov once called gay rights marches “Satanic”.The Kremlin has yet to appoint his successor.

Alexeyev, a lawyer, has lodged several lawsuits against Moscow authorities with the European Court of Human rights. (Reporting by Amie Ferris-Rotman; editing by Andrew Dobbie)