Despite calls from international diplomats and human rights organisations not to do so, the Burundian government has made homosexual conduct illegal for the first time.

In response, Human Rights Watch and 62 other Burundian, African, and international human rights organisations said in a statement that the government’s decision violates fundamental human rights and should be reversed immediately.

The organisations further expressed concern that the law will hamper Burundi’s efforts to fight AIDS.

The statement came after it was discovered that President Pierre Nkurunziza had secretly signed the legislation on April 22. It appears however as if high-ranking police and Ministry of Justice officials are not aware that the law had been promulgated, raising questions about the procedure followed.

In February, the Senate voted overwhelmingly to reject a November 2008 decision by the National Assembly to criminalise same-sex relations. However, under the Burundian constitution, the National Assembly prevails in cases of conflict between the two houses of Parliament.

The law’s Article 567 penalises consensual same-sex sexual relations by adults with up to two years in prison.

“Burundi has taken a disappointing step backward by legalising discrimination,” said Scott Long, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights Program at Human Rights Watch. “The government has fallen back on ‘custom’ and ‘culture’ to justify this repressive step – but there can be no justification for stripping some of Burundi’s people of their fundamental rights.”

While the bill was under review in Parliament, the president’s staff made calls to a number of legislators, attempting to influence their votes in favour of the measure. The president’s party, CNDD-FDD, staged a mass protest on March 12 calling for the criminalisation of homosexual conduct, bussing in schoolchildren and adults from rural provinces, many of whom, according to journalists present at the event, had no understanding of what they were protesting.

President Nkurunziza previously demonstrated his hostility to the rights of LGBT people by making a statement on television in January that homosexuality was a “curse.”

“The government claims to support human rights, but has passed a law that not only violates the right to privacy, but also discriminates against a group of citizens who have been recognised as vulnerable to HIV/AIDS,” said David Nahimana, president of the Burundian human rights organisation Ligue Iteka.

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