Monday, November 24, 2008

Burundi abolishes death penalty, outlaws homosexuals

Burundi's parliament overwhelmingly agreed on Saturday to abolish the death penalty but homosexuals voiced outrage at a provision in the new penal law that makes them criminals.

The new set of laws overwhelmingly passed by MPs after a 14-hour session still needs to be approved by the Senate and promulgated by President Pierre Nkurunziza, both steps seen as a formality.

"I would like to thank the Burundian lawmakers who have achieved a historic landmark by adopting a new penal law by 90 votes for, no votes against and 10 abstentions," Speaker Pie Ntavyohanyuma said.

"It is a revolutionary penal law because it abolishes the death penalty for the first time in Burundi," MP and former justice minister Didace Kiganahe told AFP after the session, which ended in the small hours of Saturday.

Kiganahe, responsible for drafting the new law, explained that it also "incorporates provisions of international law against genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, which were not considered offences so far."

"This vote required some courage because the lawmakers voted in favour of abolishing the death penalty knowing that their electorate wanted to maintain it," he said.

But some lawmakers criticised the provision criminalising homosexuality, saying it had tarnished the legislation. "Unfortunately, this penal law is also a regression because it now makes homosexuality a criminal offence, whereas it had been tolerated until now," said MP Catherine Mabobori, who abstained during the vote.

The Association for the Respect of Homosexuals' Rights (ARDHO) protested vigorously. "We at ARDHO are outraged by this decision to criminalise homosexuality. We don't understand how educated people can adopt such a law because homosexuality is neither a disease nor a deviance," an official told AFP.

He was speaking on condition he not be named, citing "security reasons", ahead of a crisis meeting with the association's 35 members in Bujumbura. "How are we going to be able to continue the struggle against AIDS in our community if every homosexual has to go underground," he asked.

On the streets of Bujumbura, Bernard, a civil servant in his thirties, disapproved of the new law, arguing that Burundi was getting its priorities wrong.

"I don't think abolishing the death penalty was a priority. There are currently a lot of murders and thefts. Criminals should be punished harshly to fight against impunity," he said.

Gerard, a money changer in his fifties, charged that the "abolition of the death penalty was decided by people who are trying to protect themselves because they had a hand in the crimes that plagued this country."

Abolishing the death penalty was set as a condition by the United Nations for the creation of a truth and reconciliation commission and a special tribunal in the war-ravaged country.

Burundi is struggling to emerge from a civil war that has left at least 300,000 people dead since 1993. Its political institutions have been chronically crippled by internal wrangling.

Several hundred convicts have been sentenced to death in Burundi but the last executions were carried out in 1997. 3 men were hanged simultaneously, a Tutsi, a Hutu and a Twa "to avoid arousing ethnic resentment".

Under the new law, all prisoners currently on death row will see their sentences commuted to life jail terms.

Kiganahe said the new legislation, comprising 620 articles, also "introduces a raft of provisions aimed at protecting women and children against all forms of violence, notably sexual violence."

"Finally, it will also includes specific clauses criminalising torture because this heinous practice was not punishable in Burundian law until now," he added. The new criminal laws provide for jail terms ranging from 10 years to life for torture and from 20 years to life for rape.

Neighbouring Rwanda abolished the death penalty in July 2007.

Source: Agence France-Presse