Dozens detained at violent Moscow gay rally

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Moscow police Saturday detained three prominent global gay rights leaders as violence broke out at an unprecedented rally that activists tried to stage near the Kremlin wall.

Dozens of protesters -- waving rainbow flags and some carrying signs reading "Russia is not Iran" -- were attacked during the unsanctioned event by members of an ultra-Orthodox group who had gathered near the Kremlin in anticipation.

An AFP correspondent saw the police then move in and violently wrestle both activists and members of the religious group to the ground before leading them off in handcuffs to waiting security vans.

Those detained included the renowned US gay rights activist Dan Choi as well as Britain's Peter Tatchell and France's Louis-George Tin.

"We are sitting in the police car. There are five Russians, two Americans and myself. I don't know exactly where we are," Tin told AFP by telephone.

"The handling was very rough," Tin added.

"We are asking the Council of Europe to withdraw Russia's right to vote because it does not respect the rights of gay and lesbian people and Russian citizens in general."

A Moscow police spokesman told Moscow Echo radio that 34 activists had been detained within the first minutes of the rally.

Moscow -- whose former mayor Yury Luzhkov once likened gays to the devil -- has banned gay pride parades for six years running citing public discomfort with behaviour that was considered illegal in Soviet times.

The European Court of Human Rights in October ordered Russia to pay one local rights leader damages for banning earlier marches.

But Moscow activists said ahead of the event that what they most feared most were not the arrests but attacks from Russian nationalists who openly promised to disrupt the event.

"But instead of arresting the groups threatening to create violence, the police are promising to arrest us," Russian gay rights leader Nikolai Bayev told AFP by telephone ahead of the rally.

Russian police have come under repeated condemnation from rights groups for being more lenient with nationalist forces than they are with protesters who come out in support of minority rights and freedoms.

Statistics point to a rise in xenophobic attacks in the years since former KGB member Vladimir Putin -- Russia's prime minister and current de facto leader -- first became president in 2000.

An AFP correspondent saw dozens of members of the far-right religious group wearing black robes and brandishing Christian Orthodox crosses on the square designated by the activists.

Police had cordoned off the small area in advance to thwart activists' plans to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

"We have come here to prevent this event from happening," Orthodox group member Leonid Simonovich-Nikshich said as scuffles raged around him.

"God burned down Sodom and Gomorrah and he will burn down Moscow too if we let things like this happen," he told AFP.

The small group of rights activists were mostly composed of young people who chanted "Russia without homophobia" and wore shirts with signs such as "I love her".

Some 120 Russian activists were arrested during their first attempt to stage a Moscow parade in 2006 and the city warned in advance that those who showed up at the Kremlin would get no leniency on this occasion.

A Moscow police spokesman said officers would be out on the streets in especially large numbers because the rally coincided with a holiday honouring Russia's border guards -- an occasion that has seen drunken violence in the past.

© 2011 AFP

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