Latvian gay rights groups have expressed shock at the decision to ban a gay pride march in the capital Riga.

City officials yesterday announced the parade could not take place on public order grounds but refused to divulge information about the threats.

The Latvian authorities claim the police would not be able to guarantee security and order during the march.

For weeks, Christians, nationalists and neo-Nazis have threatened violence against the Riga Gay Pride march. They have vowed to stop it taking place. Nearly 17,000 people have signed a petition demanding the march be stopped.

The request to stage the march had been made by Mozaîka, the Latvian association of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgendered persons (LBGT) and their friends, and by the gay rights organisations ILGA Latvija and Rîgas Praids.

“We are shocked by the city council’s decision, which we view as not only an unacceptable restriction of the freedom of assembly, but a major blow to democracy in the face of terrorist threats,” said Mozaîka board member Linda Freimane.

“We are preparing to challenge the decision in the Administrative Court today. Last year the Administrative Court acted very correctly by overturning the city council’s decision to revoke the Pride march permit, and so we are very hopeful that this year, too, the Court will defend democratic rights in Latvia by overturning the council’s decision.”

British gay human rights campaigner, Peter Tatchell, has today flown to Latvia to attend Riga Pride, and to support the Gay Pride organisers.

Mr Tatchell said the city council decision “echoes the bad old days of Soviet tyranny”.

“It is scandalous that a member state of the EU is giving in to threats and blackmail by religious fundamentalists and the far right.

“The government of Latvia has a duty to resist threats of homophobic violence, protect its gay citizens and safeguard the right to peaceful protest.

“Riga Gay Pride is a litmus test of Latvian democracy.

“This ban fits a pattern of homophobia by the Latvian authorities. The Latvian parliament recently refused to pass a law prohibiting employment discrimination against lesbians and gays, even though as a member state of the EU it is required to outlaw workplace

discrimination based on sexual orientation. Latvia has also banned same-sex marriage,” concluded Mr Tatchell.

Meanwhile, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church in Latvia had said the Gay Pride march should not be allowed.

“It offends the morals of Latvia’s population and every Christian. It is a challenge and provocation against our religions,” he said.

Mozaîka believes that by forbidding the march, the city council is endangering not only the rights of sexual minorities, but the foundations of democracy in Latvia.

The group said: “This precedent is extremely dangerous, because it demonstrates that the use or threat of force against a particular group is effective in winning the support of state organs in restricting the rights of this group. No resident of Latvia will be able to feel confident that at some point similarly undemocratic methods will not be used against him or her.”

They pointed out that at least 20 foreign officials will be arriving in Latvia this week to participate in the march and Friendship Days, including members of the Swedish, Danish, Austrian and European parliaments, a Swedish army captain and representatives

of several human rights organizations.

Labour MEP Michael Cashman reacted angrily to the ban, the President of the European Union’s Intergroup for Gay and Lesbian Rights, said: “By acquiescing to these extremist groups, the authorities are condoning homophobic discrimination. Moreover the authorities are denying the Latvian LGBT community their basic rights of freedom of expression and assembly.

“Instead of banning the march, the Riga authorities should be denouncing those who are intent upon violence. Intolerance, discrimination and violence against homosexuals has no place in our 21st Century world.

“If politicians in Latvia want to continue enjoying the benefits that membership of the EU brings then they should abide by the rules. The iron curtain came down over a decade ago. People’s human rights can no longer be disregarded.”

Last year’s Riga Gay Pride march was violently attacked. This year, the homophobic opposition is better organised and poses an even greater threat to the safety of the marchers.

Amnesty International called on the Latvian authorities to observe human rights of freedom of assembly and freedom of speech.

Gay activists in Moscow were attacked last May after the Russian gay pride was banned and attendees of the Warsaw and Bucharest gay pride were threatened with violence.