Africa

Gay Couple In Malawi Sentenced To 14 Years

Tiwonge Chimbalanga (right) and Steven Monjeza are led from court in Blantyre, Malawi i

Tiwonge Chimbalanga (right) and Steven Monjeza are led from court in Blantyre, Malawi, on Thursday after a judge sentenced the couple to the maximum 14 years in prison for unnatural acts and gross indecency. Alex Ntonya/AP hide caption

toggle caption Alex Ntonya/AP
Tiwonge Chimbalanga (right) and Steven Monjeza are led from court in Blantyre, Malawi

Tiwonge Chimbalanga (right) and Steven Monjeza are led from court in Blantyre, Malawi, on Thursday after a judge sentenced the couple to the maximum 14 years in prison for unnatural acts and gross indecency.

Alex Ntonya/AP

A court in Malawi has sentenced two gay men to the maximum of 14 years in prison with hard labor following their engagement ceremony in December. The sentence, which had been expected after their conviction earlier this week, has outraged human-rights activists, who say it will send homosexuals into hiding and hinder the fight against HIV/AIDS.

Tiwonge Chimbalanga, 20, and Steven Monjeza, 26 were convicted of unnatural acts and gross indecency under laws dating from the colonial era.

"Maximum sentences are intended for use for worst cases," Magistrate Nyakwawa Usiwa Usiwa said as he delivered his sentence Thursday. "We are sitting here to represent the Malawi society which I do not believe is ready at this point in time to see its sons getting married to other sons or conducting engagement ceremonies."

The lawyer for the two, Mauya Msuku, said they would appeal.

Chimbalanga remained composed as armed police officers handcuffed him to Monjeza.

"I am not worried," he told reporters as they were taken to a police vehicle.

Monjeza broke down upon hearing the ruling and was still sobbing as he was helped into the van.

Hundreds of onlookers inside and outside the courthouse showed little sympathy. There were shouts of, "You got what you deserve!" and "Fourteen years is not enough, they should get 50!"

Michelle Kagari, deputy Africa director of Amnesty International, called the sentence "an outrage."

Amnesty will "work tirelessly to see that they are released unconditionally as soon as possible," Kagari said by telephone from her office in Kampala, Uganda.

In a joint statement issued in London on Thursday, lawmakers Henry Bellingham, Stephen O'Brien and Lynne Featherstone urged the Malawian government to review its laws to ensure human rights were protected.

They said their country "believes that human rights apply to everyone regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity" and would, with its international partners, "continue to press the Government of Malawi on this issue."

In Washington, P.J. Crowley, an assistant secretary of state, expressed the U.S.'s deep disappointment with the conviction of Chimbalanga and Monjeza.

"We view the criminalization of sexual orientation and gender identity as a step backward in the protection of human rights in Malawi," Crowley said.

Homosexuality is illegal in at least 37 countries in Africa. In Uganda, lawmakers are considering a bill under which homosexuals could be sentenced to life in prison and "repeat offenders" could be executed.

South Africa is the only African nation that allows gay marriage. But even there, lesbians have been targeted for so-called corrective rape and even murdered. Mark Heywood, director of the South Africa-based AIDS Law Project, called the sentence "outrageous and a violation of human rights" and said activists should hold protests around the world.

Gay activists gathering in Cape Town on Thursday called on the government of President Jacob Zuma to advocate for the release of the two men and offer them asylum.

Malawi's government has been defiant in the face of international criticism.

Betsy Chirambo, an adviser to President Bingu wa Mutharika, expressed concern over calls by some activists for the West to withdraw aid to Malawi because of the case. Up to 40 percent of Malawi's development budget comes from foreign donors.

"It is not our culture for a man to marry a man," Chirambo said this week. "That is not even in our Constitution. Some of these rights are not good for our culture."

The government has been backed by religious leaders in the country who have equated homosexuality with Satanism.

But the debate also has emboldened some rights activists in the southern African country. The independent Centre for the Development of People was recently formed by Malawians to fight for the rights of homosexuals and other minorities.

Gift Trapence, executive director of the organization, was at the courthouse Thursday and told reporters: "How can they get 14 years simply for loving one another? Even if they are jailed for 20 years you can't change their sexuality."

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.

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