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By Liza Dobkina
ST PETERSBURG, Russia (Reuters) - A prominent Russian gay rights campaigner was fined on Friday for spreading gay "propaganda" among minors, a court official said, in the first application of a new law in the city of St Petersburg that has enraged activists.
Nikolai Alexeyev was detained during a rally against the law last month, as he carried a banner with the slogan: "Homosexuality is not a perversion. What is a perversion is field hockey and ice dancing," citing a saying of a prominent Soviet-era actress.
Gay and other rights groups say the legislation smothers freedom of expression and is an example of what they see as growing hostility to homosexuality in Russia.
A number of other towns and cities have adopted a law banning the spreading of anything seen as gay "propaganda" among young people. But the issue only hit the headlines after St Petersburg, Russia's second city, passed the law in March.
A similar bill has been submitted to the Russian State Duma, the lower house of parliament, which could be applied across the country if adopted.
"What is happening today in St Petersburg is absurd," said Aklexeyev, who was fined 5,000 roubles ($170) "I am happy that they passed the first sentence under this law, it showed ... that it (the law) can be applied to anyone," he told Reuters by telephone.
He said he would appeal against the sentence in Russian courts and at the European Court of Human Rights.
European diplomats have said the law lacks clarity and allows too much room for interpretation by police.
U.S. pop star Madonna, who is due to perform in St Petersburg in August, has said she will use her tour to speak out about gay rights.
Police detained 17 gay rights demonstrators who held rainbow flags during May Day celebrations this week in St Petersburg. But they have been charged only with disobeying police, a misdemeanour punishable by a fine or short-term arrest.
Homosexuality, punishable by jail in Soviet times, was decriminalised in Russia in 1993 but anti-gay prejudice runs deep and much of the homosexual community remains largely underground.
The Russian Orthodox Church, whose influence has grown since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, speaks out against homosexuality and gay rights rallies have often ended in arrests.
($1 = 29.5045 Russian roubles)
(Writing by Alexei Anishchuk)
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