The government of Burundi has criminalised homosexuality, punishing offenders with up to two years in prison.

Burundi’s president, Pierre Nkurunziza, secretly signed the legislation into law on April 22th.

In March, the lower house of the African country’s parliament reversed a Senate vote which rejected the amendment to the new criminal code.

However, thousands of citizens took to the streets in a government-organised demonstration to protest at the Senate decision not to criminalise homosexuality.

Under the Burundian constitution, the National Assembly prevails in cases of conflict between the two houses of Parliament

The new law makes being gay a crime for the first time in the country’s history.

Gay and human rights groups are campaigning to have the law repealed, saying it violates fundamental human rights.

Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and around 60 other groups have spoken out over the move.

“Burundi has taken a disappointing step backward by legalising discrimination,” said Scott Long, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights Programme 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.”

Campaigners claim that the law’s Article 567, which penalises consensual same-sex sexual relations by adults with up to two years in prison, violates the rights to privacy and freedom from discrimination.

There are also fears the new legislation will hamper efforts to fight AIDS.

Other changes to the law include abolishing the death penalty and introducing new laws against genocide, war crimes and torture.

Amnesty International welcomed the lifting of the death penalty but expressed disappointment at the new anti-gay laws.

The organisation’s Africa programme director, Erwin van der Borgh, said: “This good news is undermined by the government’s decision to criminalise homosexuality, in violation of Burundi’s obligations under international and regional human rights law. It also flies in the face of Burundi’s constitution, which guarantees the right to privacy.”