World News

Russian gays elude police for first calm protest

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Gay and lesbian activists eluded Russian security services in a five-hour game of cat and mouse on Saturday to hold the first gay protest in Moscow not to be broken up by riot police.

After luring hundreds of riot police and undercover officers to a different location, a group of about 25 gay and lesbian activists unfurled a rainbow banner on Moscow’s main Leningradsky Avenue, chanting “homophobia is Russia’s disgrace.”

They said the subterfuge was needed to avoid a repeat of the violence seen in previous years when Moscow police, nationalists and ultra-Orthodox believers broke up similar protests.

“It is very difficult to be openly gay in Russia: you can face serious problems at work and discrimination is very widespread,” said Nikolai Bayev, a gay activist at the protest.

“Russia is where most Western countries were in the 1970s when it comes to gay rights ... We are only just starting to really come out,” he said.

Police arrived soon after the brief protest, which the city of Moscow had refused to permit, but the activists scattered.

Homosexuality could be punished with jail terms in the Soviet Union and though Russia decriminalized homosexuality in 1993, intolerance remains very widespread. Polls have shown more than 80 percent of Russians see homosexuality as immoral.

Mayor Yuri Luzhkov has said gay protests are satanic and previous attempts to hold such events have ended in multiple arrests and clashes with ultra-Orthodox believers who say gays should be punished or treated in hospital for their “illness.”

Just days before last year’s Eurovision Song Contest in Moscow, police arrested at least 40 gay and lesbian activists at a similar protest.

Gay activists had asked Western embassies to host the protest but they said their proposal was either ignored or turned down by envoys from the United States, Canada and major European Union states.

“The EU and Western embassies are hypocrites,” said British gay rights activist Peter Tatchell, who traveled to Moscow to join the protest.

“We are being hounded and hunted by the police and the FSB Security Service all because we want to hold a peaceful gay rights protest.”

The Moscow police declined to comment. A spokesman for the FSB, the main successor to the Soviet-era KGB, also declined comment and asked for questions in writing which he said would not be answered before Monday.

Editing by Alison Williams