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Council of Europe chief: Wurst's Eurovision victory shows progress of freedom of expression

Austrian singer Conchita Wurst arrives with the trophy at the airport in Vienna Sunday May 11, 2014. Bearded drag queen Conchita Wurst has made a triumphant return to Austria after winning the Eurovision Song Contest in Copenhagen Saturday, in what the country's president called a victory for tolerance in Europe. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak)

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Austrian singer Conchita Wurst arrives with the trophy at the airport in Vienna Sunday May 11, 2014. Bearded drag queen Conchita Wurst has made a triumphant return to Austria after winning the Eurovision Song Contest in Copenhagen Saturday, in what the country's president called a victory for tolerance in Europe. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak)

PARIS - The head of Europe's leading human rights body is praising Conchita Wurst's Eurovision victory as a positive sign that freedom of expression is thriving, and that Europeans are "allowed to shock."

Secretary-General Thorbjorn Jagland of the Council of Europe spoke with The Associated Press by phone about new initiatives to fight anti-gay discrimination before Saturday's International Day against Homophobia.

Despite Russia's ban on dissemination of "gay propaganda" to minors, Jagland said "the general public is moving in the right direction" on tolerance and nondiscrimination in Europe and "we shouldn't put too much pressure" on countries — some in eastern Europe — that take longer.

"I think that Europe wants us to demonstrate that they are for freedom of expression," he said of the victory of Wurst, a bearded transvestite, "that you are also allowed to shock."

"You should be allowed to disturb ... public opinion a little bit. That's what brings us forward — that somebody has the courage to do something different, and appear a little bit different," he said.

A spokesman for the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe later provided more comments from Jagland, who said Friday he was "saddened" by Moscow's decision to reject an application by gay activists to hold a parade celebrating Wurst's Eurovision song contest victory. The secretary-general also called on Russia "to uphold the right to peaceful freedom of assembly," according to the spokesman, Daniel Holtgen.

Jagland said each country must advance at its own speed. In his native Norway, which has made strides in fighting discrimination against gays, passports as recently as the late 1970s would indicate whether a citizen was homosexual, he said. In the Baltic states, it was "impossible" to speak freely about gay rights issues just two or three years ago, "and now it's more natural."

He said the 47-nation council plans to launch this year a new intergovernmental initiative called the European Committee for Social Cohesion, Human Dignity and Equality that will help countries share experiences and strategies in fighting discrimination.

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