Riot police arrest Tatchell at gay march in Moscow

Protest to coincide with Eurovision is banned to prevent 'moral degradation'

Riot police in Moscow ruthlessly broke up a peaceful gay rights protest yesterday, at times using violence to detain the participants. The city authorities had banned the march, timed to coincide with the supposedly gay-friendly Eurovision Song Contest, but around 30 activists decided to protest anyway, changing the venue at the last minute.

They gathered near Moscow's main university, chanting slogans and unveiling banners protesting against homophobia in Russian society. Most of the demonstrators, including the organiser, Nikolai Alexeev, and British gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, were bundled into police vans and driven away. The city's mayor has previously referred to gays as "Satanists" and the authorities claimed the march had been banned to prevent "moral degradation".

At Pushkin Square in central Moscow, where the gay march was initially slated to take place, around 1,000 riot police were massed. In another part of the city, a small "anti-gay" protest was allowed to go ahead, although six Orthodox Christian activists were detained in Pushkin Square.

"We will not allow these people to turn our city into another Sodom," said one protester, Igor Miroshnichenko, just before he was arrested.

Mr Tatchell was released without charge in the afternoon after the British Embassy requested consular access to him, but most of the other participants in the gay demonstration were still being held by police. Mr Alexeev was separated from the rest. "We can't make contact with him," Mr Tatchell said. "We're very concerned for his safety and well-being."

He added that it was "disappointing" that little open support had been given to the protesters by Eurovision participants. "They're under huge pressure to avoid controversy over this," he said.

The police had tried to detain protesters in the days leading up to the march, and the activists spent two days hiding at a country house outside the city. They evaded police roadblocks to make their way into Moscow yesterday morning but, within five minutes of their protest starting at the new, unannounced venue, they were all under arrest, with police using strong-arm tactics even where no resistance was offered.