Lithuanian court reverses ban on gay pride parade, citing rights to assembly and expression

VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) — A Lithuanian appeals court said Friday that the country's first gay pride parade can go ahead as planned, overturning a ban imposed by a lower court that had warned of violent protests.

The procession Saturday in the Lithuanian capital is expected to draw hundreds of participants and an even larger crowd of opponents. A Vilnius court Wednesday banned the event, saying authorities would be unable to guarantee the safety of the participants.

But the Supreme Administration Court rejected the lower court's decision, saying the government is obligated to defend the rights to assembly and expression even if involves "those who share unpopular points of view or are members of minority groups."

As in many other former Soviet republics, gay rights is a sensitive issue in Lithuania — an EU member since 2004 — which has repeatedly been criticized by human rights groups for widespread intolerance toward sexual minorities.

No major gay pride events have been held in the largely Catholic country of 3.4 million since it regained independence in 1991.

A 2006 poll found that more than 80 percent of the population considered homosexuality a disease. Another survey of about 1,000 people by the RAIT pollster in March showed 73 percent opposed the idea of a gay pride parade in Vilnius. The poll had a margin of error of 2.5 percent.

The lower court's decision to ban the parade prompted criticism from human rights groups, European officials, and Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, who dismissed the notion that police would not be able to guarantee public safety.

"This whole story is just more proof that human rights in Lithuania are in great danger," gay rights activist Vladimir Simonko said. He welcomed the appeals court's ruling and said organizers "are sure that security will be guaranteed for the participants of demonstration."

Police said Friday they will be deploying more than 800 officers, including mounted police and canine units. People near the parade will be searched for rocks, eggs or other potential projectiles.

Lawmaker Petras Grazulis, who planned to join the anti-gay demonstration, said the appeals court had been influenced by the president's position.

"I think there are symptoms of constitutional violations that may lead to an impeachment process," he said.

Last year, Lithuania's Parliament passed a censorship bill aiming at keeping information about homosexuality away from children. Critics said the text violated the freedom of speech and international standards of human rights.