MOSCOW – Riot police broke up several gay rights demonstrations in Moscow on Saturday, hauling away scores of protesters hours before the capital hosted a major international pop music competition.
Activists had targeted Moscow, which was holding the finals of the Eurovision song contest, hoping to use the event's global popularity to draw attention to their claims that Russia officially sanctions homophobia.
Led by a mayor who describes homosexuality as "satanic," city officials had warned they would not tolerate marches or rallies supporting the rights of gays and lesbians.
Among those detained were British activist Peter Tatchell and American activist Andy Thayer of Chicago, co-founder of the Gay Liberation Network.
No injuries were reported. Most of the arrests took place at a hastily organized protest near Moscow State University in southwest Moscow, where about 30 protesters shouted "Homophobia is a disgrace of this country!" and "We are demanding equal rights!"
"This shows the Russian people are not free!" Tatchell yelled as he was being dragged to a police car. He was released a short time later.
Decades of official persecution of Russian gays ended in 1993 with the decriminalization of homosexuality, but opposition to gay rights remains widespread.
Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov has described homosexuality as "satanic" and sought to justify official discrimination against gay people in Russia by claiming they help spread AIDS. Luzhkov has banned gay pride rallies in recent years, and attempted marches by gay activists have typically ended in detentions and attacks by nationalist groups.
City authorities had barred Saturday's rally.
Gay pride events "not only destroy moral foundations of our society, but also purposefully provoke disturbances that will threaten the lives and safety of Moscow residents and guests," City Hall spokesman Sergei Tsoi was quoted by the ITAR-Tass news agency as saying Saturday.
Police seized gay rights advocates as well as some members of religious and nationalist groups that staged counter-demonstrations. They also took away gay rights activists for talking to reporters, and ripped the bra and shirt off one female protester.
Moscow police spokesman Anatoly Listovetsky said 40 people were detained, but media reports said up to 80 were seized. None of the protests in central Moscow took place near the capital's Olimpiysky Sports Complex, where the Eurovision concert being held Saturday night.
Tatchell said Russian gay rights leaders had appealed to Eurovision contestants to denounce the police crackdown from the stage during the competition. The live contest, which pits finalists from 24 different nations against each other, has drawn up to 100 million television viewers previously and is Europe's most prestigious pop song competition.
"If ... the right to assemble is taken away from lesbian and gay people here in Russia, then other Russians have to fear for their own freedom," Thayer told reporters just before he was seized by police.
At a sanctioned rally near the Kremlin, about 50 demonstrators from nationalist and Orthodox Christian organizations denounced homosexuality. One man was detained when he alleged officials in the Kremlin were gay.
A half-dozen people protesting equal rights for gay people also were seized by police during a demonstration in Moscow's central Pushkin Square.
There are no official estimates of how many gays and lesbians live in Russia, and only a few big cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg have gay nightclubs and gyms.
Several gay couples have attempted unsuccessfully to wed since the mid-1990s. Last week a lesbian couple were denied their application for a marriage license.