MINSK (Reuters) - Belarussian police on Saturday broke up a gay and lesbian pride demonstration by about 20 participants who defied an official ban to gather on a side street in central Minsk and march with bright rainbow flags.
Some carried handwritten signs saying, “Today they ban gays, tomorrow they will ban you,” in a short-lived protest that was the first of its kind organized by the Russian and Belarussian Slavic Pride rights group in the capital.
Police wearing black berets and armed with batons moved in after the protesters advanced about 300 meters down the street. They tore away the flags and hauled off the marchers, some of whom had traveled from Russia for the event.
“The police reaction was completely disproportionate to the threat which they thought the protesters posed,” Russian activist Nikolai Alekseev told Reuters.
“There were 20 people there, behaving peacefully, there were no scuffles and there was no basis for such a rough operation by the authorities.”
Between 5 and 10 of the parade participants were arrested, a Reuters reporter present at the event observed.
Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko is under Western pressure to enact political reforms and encourage broader civil rights in his country, which has seen ties with traditional ally Russian worsen recently.
Homosexuality was decriminalized in the early 1990s; but as in Russia there is little official tolerance of any public show and gay bars and other meeting places tend to be cautiously discreet.
Rights group Amnesty International issued a statement before the protest urging Minsk authorities to allow it to take place.
“The Belarusian authorities must demonstrate greater commitment to their human rights obligations, which clearly require the authorization of such events,” said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s expert on discrimination in Europe.
“The authorities’ refusal constitutes a blatant disregard for equality and the full respect of human rights in Belarus.”
Reporting by Andrey Makhovsky, writing by Alfred Kueppers; editing by Ralph Boulton