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Burundi President Evariste Ndayishimiye addresses the U.N. General Assembly in New York City, September 21, 2023. © 2023 Brendan McDermid/Reuters

In an ever-worsening climate for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in East Africa, Burundian president Évariste Ndayishimiye has added fuel to the fire. Speaking with journalists on December 29, he said, “if you want to attract a curse to the country, accept homosexuality,” and “it is better to take [LGBT people] to a stadium and stone them” because “that’s what they deserve.”

The reaction was swift. One LGBT activist in Burundi who requested anonymity told Human Rights Watch: “Very quickly, on social media networks, a thousand comments from [the president’s] supporters [emerged] with competing threats and calls for murder, each more atrocious than the last.” Many of the comments went further than the president, calling for even more violence and brutal punishments against LGBT people.

Days later the Burundian ambassador to Belgium issued a statement claiming the president’s remarks had been “misinterpreted.” The United States and European Union called on Burundi’s government to respect the rights of all Burundians, but stopped short of calling out the remarks for what they were: homophobic.

This type of fearmongering is not new in Burundi, where sexual relations between people of the same sex have been illegal since former president Pierre Nkurunziza signed a new criminal code into law in 2009. The law was a fierce blow to Burundi’s LGBT people, who had begun to come out and organize, albeit in small numbers, to demand their rights be respected.

The National Assembly’s human rights commission added the anti-homosexuality provision in the 2009 criminal code at the last minute, apparently under pressure from Nkurunziza, who made statements on television condemning homosexuality as a “curse.” His offices also telephoned lawmakers seeking to influence their votes.

The crackdown on LGBT rights, which is being felt across the region, risks getting worse amidst Burundi’s broader human rights crisis, including continuing political repression and restrictions on freedom of expression to maintain the ruling party’s control. Ndayishimiye, who presents himself as a progressive, rights-respecting leader, should be working to reverse this trend rather than stoking more fear and hatred.

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