Botswana’s high court struck down laws banning gay sex on Tuesday, handing a significant but still comparatively rare victory to sexual minority rights campaigners in Africa.

Declaring that the state could no longer “be a sheriff in people’s bedrooms”, judges in Gabarone, Botswana’s capital, unanimously ruled that legal provisions criminalising same-sex relations were unconstitutional.

“A democratic society is one that embraces tolerance, diversity and open-mindedness,” Justice Michael Leburu told the court, prompting cheers and applause after the ruling was read.

“Human dignity is harmed when minority groups are marginalised. Sexual orientation is not a fashion statement. It is an important attribute of one’s personality.”

The ruling, which will cement Botswana’s reputation as one of Africa’s most democratic and progressive states, strikes out clauses in the penal code that impose a prison sentence of up to seven years for carnal acts “against the order of nature”.

It also amends a law that made acts of gross indecency committed in private punishable by up to two years in jail. No-one had been convicted under either law since at least 2003.

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Amnesty International, the human rights group, called on other African states “to follow suit”.

Although gay rights have made stuttering progress in parts of Africa, with several states taking steps to end discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, sodomy remains illegal in 32 countries on the continent.

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Last month, a court in Kenya rejected a similar petition to end a ban on gay sex. Southern Africa has proved itself more liberal than other parts of the continent, perhaps influenced by South Africa, the only African state that permits same-sex marriage.

Mozambique and Angola have both legalised gay sex in recent years. British colonial rule, which transplanted Victorian sodomy laws onto imperial African possessions, has been widely blamed for hostility towards homosexuality in Africa, a view shared by the judges.

“Homosexuality is not un-African, but it is one other way Africans identify but have been repressed for many years,” Justice Leburu said. Activists in Botswana welcomed the ruling.

“This incredibly life-changing decision…is a step to restoring our dignity as human beings,” said Anna Mmolai-Chalmers of the Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals of Botswana organisation.

“We can finally start building a more tolerant society where LGBT persons are not in constant fear of being arrested by these archaic laws. The real work starts now.”

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