|Stephane Tchakam, ILGA|
|Stephane Tchakam, ILGA|
Men who publicly committed to each other could now face 14 years in prison, sparking fears of unwelcome African precedent
A judge has found a gay couple guilty of unnatural acts and gross indecency after a trial that has sparked worldwide condemnation of Malawi's laws on homosexuality.
Blantyre chief resident magistrate Nyakwawa Usiwa issued the ruling yesterday. The couple are facing up to 14 years in prison with hard labour after becoming the first gay couple in Malawi to publicly commit themselves to each other.
Steven Monjeza, 26, and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, 20, had been jailed since they were arrested on 27 December, the day they celebrated their engagement with a party that drew crowds of curious onlookers.
Chimbalanga, 20, and Monjeza, 26, took a historic step when they committed to marriage at a symbolic ceremony in the southern African state, where homosexuality is outlawed.
The couple were arrested two days later at their home. Chimbalanga and Monjeza were met with taunts and jeers when they appeared in court to answer three charges of unnatural practices between males and gross indecency. They were denied bail, supposedly for their own safety, and have been forced to endure dire conditions in jail, according to supporters.
Angry residents and relatives from Machinjiri township, on the outskirts of Blantyre, say they will not allow them to return home if they are set free.
A retired economist, Thindwa, added: "We are giving them moral support by bringing them food, money and clothes to prison."
The rule comes as a blow to gay rights movements across the continent, sparking fears that the ruling could be viewed as a test case and set an unwelcome precedent.
Peter Tatchell, the veteran British gay rights campaigner, told the Guardian last week he received a defiant message from Chimbalanga that said: "I love Steven so much. If people or the world cannot give me the chance and freedom to continue living with him as my lover, then I am better off to die here in prison. Freedom without him is useless and meaningless."
Monjeza – who is described as thin and weak with jaundiced eyes – told him: "We have come a long way and even if our relatives are not happy, I will never stop loving Tiwonge."
Gay sex remains illegal in 37 countries in Africa and is widely vilified. A recent poll by the Pew Research Centre found that 98% of people in Cameroon, Kenya and Zambia disapprove of homosexuality. Since legal advances in South Africa, a new wave of activists have begun to take a stand and campaign for gay rights in several countries including Kenya, Ghana, Malawi, Zimbabwe and other countries.
Last year Uganda proposed legislation advocating punishments for gay sex that range from life imprisonment to the death penalty. The country has come under intense pressure from activists both inside Uganda and overseas.
Freedom and Roam Uganda (Farug) and Sexual Minorities Uganda (Smug) received some positive news in recent weeks, however, when it emerged that a special committee organised by president Yoweri Museveni has recommended that the bill be withdrawn.