A judge convicted a gay couple Tuesday of charges that could send them to jail for more than a decade, a ruling activists fear could send others into hiding and hamper the fight against AIDS.
Tiwonge Chimbalanga, 20, and his partner, Steven Monjeza, 26, were arrested in December the day after a celebration of their union at the hotel where Chimbalanga works. The party reportedly drew a large crowd of hostile onlookers.
The men were convicted of gross indecency and unnatural acts. Blantyre Chief Resident Magistrate Nyakwawa Usiwa said they will be sentenced Thursday and could be imprisoned for up to 14 years. They are expected to appeal.
As gay people have become more open about their lives in Africa, more countries have sought to maximize penalties against them. Thirty-seven countries have anti-gay laws, many of which were encouraged by Christian evangelical groups from the United States. A proposed law in Uganda would enforce the death penalty against gay people in some circumstances.
Malawi's government has been defiant in the face of international criticism over the couple's prosecution.
The verdict is "extremely disturbing," said Michaela Clayton of the Namibia-based AIDS & Rights Alliance for Southern Africa, saying it could encourage anti-gay sentiment in the region and set back the fight against AIDS.
Gay people forced underground in Africa are unlikely to seek counseling and treatment for AIDS, activists say. In Malawi, nearly 1 million people — an estimated 12 percent of the population — are living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
Undule Mwakasungula, a gay rights activist in Malawi, said Chimbalanga and Monjeza were concerned that if they were released, they could be attacked by Malawians who have threatened them. But given the laws and the climate in Malawi, he said a guilty verdict had been expected.
The courtroom was packed Tuesday, and hundreds more people waited outside for a glimpse of the couple, who did not speak. Chimbalanga exchanged high-five greetings with some in the crowd as he was escorted from the courthouse. Monjeza, who had been tearful at previous hearings, was expressionless.
Priti Patel of the Southern African Litigation Centre, an independent rights group, said the couple could appeal on the grounds that the laws under which they were prosecuted violate the country's 1994 Constitution. But an earlier attempt by their lawyer to have the case thrown out on those grounds was rejected.
The government, backed by Malawi church leaders, says it is clear the two men broke the law. Religious officials say homosexuality is "sinful" and the West should not be allowed to use its financial power to force Malawi to accept homosexuality. Malawi relies on donors for 40 percent of its development budget.
Edi Phiri, who fled Malawi for Britain five years ago after being beaten because he was gay, said he was shocked by Tuesday's verdict.
"It's very, very pathetic," he said. "I don't know how I can describe how disappointed I am."