In an unexpected move, the National Assembly of Burundi passed legislation on Friday aimed at making same-sex acts punishable by between three months and two years in prison, along with a substantial fine.

The following day, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) and the Association pour le Respect et les Droits des Homosexuels (ARDO) issued letters to the entire membership of Burundi’s Senate, asking them to vote against the legislation, which would criminalise homosexuality for the first time in the history of that African country.

The Senate may vote on the bill as early as this week and if it passes Burundian President Nkurunziza will likely sign it into law.

Nevertheless, IGLHRC and ARDO also wrote to President Nkurunziza, asking him to veto the legislation should it be presented to him for his signature. Both groups have encouraged others to contact Burundian authorities to protest the measure.

“Imprisoning people simply because of who they love offends every principle of human rights practice, which is to ensure dignity and respect for all people,” said Paula Ettelbrick, IGLHRC’s executive director.

“This is less about sexuality and more about the visibility of a growing community of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Africa refusing to be treated as dirt. These laws are meant to silence and terrorise our community and must be stopped.”

International and local human rights defenders have expressed grave concern not only about the nature of the current legislation in Burundi, but also about the way in which it has been promulgated. “The government has moved this bill quickly and unjustly through the legislative process,” said a representative of ARDO.

“The whole process has happened over the course of a weekend, with no input from civil society or general discussion about the issue of homosexuality and freedom of expression within Burundi.”

The government of Burundi’s latest move comes in the context of considerable hostility to homosexuality in the region; two-thirds of African nations maintain criminal penalties for consensual same-sex behaviour. In recent years several countries, including Nigeria and Uganda, have threatened to strengthen laws against homosexuality.

New criminal codes in Zimbabwe broaden the definition of sodomy to include “any act that involves physical contact… that would be regarded by a reasonable person to be an indecent act.” Several nations, including Burundi, have enacted legislation criminalising same-sex marriage, though little or no advocacy to promote such marriages has taken place.

These laws appear to be emerging in response to an increasingly visible, outspoken, and organised sexual rights movement.

The United Nations has condemned laws that criminalise homosexuality as being violations of the rights to privacy and equality and has called upon member states that maintain such laws to review them.

Members of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights have condemned physical attacks on and the imprisonment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

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