Thousands of Burundians took part in a government-organised demonstration Friday to demand that homosexuality be criminalised.
Between 10,000 and 20,000 people turned out, according to varying estimates, to protest the senate's decision not to criminalise homosexuality, in the largest demonstration since President Pierre Nkurunziza came to power in 2005.
"The CNDD-FDD is protesting today to support the (view of the) majority of Burundians that homosexuality should be punished by law," said Jeremie Ngendakumana, the ruling party's chairman.
"Homosexuality is a sin. It is a culture which has been imported to sully our morals and is practiced by immoral people," Ngendakumana told reporters.
"If we love our country, if we love our culture, we must ban this practice which will draw only misfortune for us," he added.
On February 17, senators voted through a draft criminal code law that abolished the death penalty, but rejected an amendment that outlawed homosexuality.
Parliament's lower chamber had adopted the amendments in November that sought to penalise homosexuality by up to two years in jail.
The senate's version is to be returned to the lower house for adoption but if it fails to be passed, the two chambers have to form a commission to harmonise the bill before the president approves it.
The country's main opposition party criticised the protests as "a huge manipulation of the people, a demagogic move," its spokesman Pancrace Cimpaye told AFP.
He said President Pierre Nkurunziza's party strength was weakening and was taking advantage of the popular opposition to homosexuality.
"This demonstration fulfils the wishes of Pierre Nkurunziza who is a born again and who swore not to assent to the penal code if it does not penalise homosexuality," he added.
The association for the respect of homosexuals' rights in Burundi (ARDHO) argued the demonstration was an electoral manoeuvre by Nkurunziza's regime.
"Burundian homosexuals are worried and afraid because the ruling party is attempting to numb the population... This is pure propaganda crafted for the 2010 elections," ARDHO vice chairman Christian Rumu told AFP.
Nkurunziza is expected to run for re-election during general polls scheduled next year. Opposition movements and rights watchdogs have accused the regime of restricting freedoms in the run-up to the elections.
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