A Malawian court yesterday refused bail to two men who celebrated their engagement to be married in a traditional African ceremony, which they held late last year. Giving his ruling at a court in the city of Blantyre on Monday 4 January, judge Nyakwawa Usiwa-Usiwa claimed Steven Monjeza (26) and Tiwonge Chimbalanga (20) were at risk of mob violence and would be safer in custody – a claim rejected by the defendants and their lawyers.
In Malawi, even people accused of serious crimes like violent robbery and assault usually get bail. The same day the police arrested a worker from the human rights group CEDEP, which assisted the detained men and secured them legal representation. "Steven and Tiwonge are the first same-sex couple to begin the process of getting married in Malawi," said human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell of OutRage! In London, who has been liaising with human rights defenders inside Malawi to support the detained men. "The two men have been returned to Chichiri Prison pending their trial on charges of homosexuality, scheduled for Friday 15 January in Blantyre," added Mr Tatchell. "They face a maximum sentence of 14 years jail, under Malawi’s anti-gay law, section 153 of the penal code, which was originally imposed on the country by the British colonisers during the nineteenth century. "Both men deny the charges and will challenge the prosecution on the grounds that it is illegal under the equal rights and non-discrimination clauses of the Malawian constitution.
"Tiwonge and Steven are quite fearful and dejected. They were jeered in court and have been disowned by their families. Conditions in Chichiri jail are appalling. They say they have been beaten in prison and they are now threatened with forced intimate medical examinations to determine whether they have had sex.
"Visitors have taken them food and clothing and given them some money. They encouraged them to stand firm and reassured them that they have support inside Malawi and worldwide. This has lifted their spirits.
"Steven and Tiwonge now have a good legal team, including Mauya Msuku, Felix Tandwe and Noel Supedi. "They also have the support of the Malawian human rights group, the Centre for the Development of People (CEDEP), which works to defend the welfare of marginalised communities, including prisoners, sex workers and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. "Ominously, the administrator of CEDEP was arrested on 4 January on trumped up charges that the group’s safer sex HIV education materials are pornographic. His arrest is almost certainly in retaliation for CEDEP’s public support for Tiwonge and Steven. There are concerns that the Executive Director of CEDEP, Gift Trapence, may now also face arrest by the police.
"This prosecution is illegal. It is contrary to section 20 of the Malawi constitution, which outlaws all discrimination and it violates the equal treatment provisions of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which Malawi has signed and pledged to uphold. "Malawi’s anti-gay laws were not devised by Malawians. They were devised in London in the nineteenth century and imposed on the people of Malawi by the British colonisers and their army of occupation. Before the British came and conquered Malawi, there were no laws against homosexuality. These laws are a foreign imposition. They are not African laws," said Mr Tatchell.