|Stephane Tchakam, ILGA|
|Stephane Tchakam, ILGA|
Human rights campaigners protest after Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga sent to serve sentences 40 miles apart. A gay couple jailed for 14 years in Malawi have been separated into prisons more than 40 miles apart with little hope of maintaining contact. Steven Monjeza, 26, and his partner, 20-year-old Tiwonge Chimbalanga, were last week convicted of gross indecency and unnatural acts and sentenced to the maximum 14 years with hard labour.
Monjeza has been sent to the 1938-built maximum security prison in Zomba, while Chimbalanga remains at Chichiri prison in the commercial capital, Blantyre.
“I can confirm that the two were separated,” activist George Thindwa said. “Steven was sent to Zomba on Sunday.”
Thindwa said he was tipped about the move by a top prison authority, who phoned him to say: “Your friend Steve is going to Zomba maximum prison.”
Zomba, the capital city until 1975, is more than 40 miles from Blantyre. Both jails are notorious for overcrowding and inhumane conditions.
Thindwa, director of the Association for Secular Humanism, has been a friend of the couple, providing food and other necessities when they were together at Chichiri. “I knew this was going to happen because the standard procedure has been to send convicts with long sentences to Zomba,” said Thindwa, himself a former political prisoner.
“In terms of morale I know what is going on between Steven and Tiwonge … Their morale is down because they can no longer encourage each other.”
He said his organisation, which will continue to fight for gay rights, would visit Monjeza and Chimbalanga soon to “give them morale and provisions”.
The sentencing of the pair has provoked anger and disbelief around the world. Anglican bishops in South Africa have called on their government to press Malawi to release the two men and repeal its repressive legislation. The South African church, formerly led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, has traditionally been more liberal in outlook than other African churches, including Anglican churches further north.
The bishops’ statement said: “We are united in opposing the criminalisation of homosexual people. We see the sentence that has been handed down to these two individuals as a gross violation of human rights and we therefore strongly condemn such sentences and behaviour towards other human beings. We emphasize the teachings of the scriptures that all human beings are created in the image of God and therefore must be treated with respect and accorded human dignity.
“We call on our president and government to pursue the same values and standards for the upholding of human wellbeing, dignity and respect … to engage in dialogue with their counterparts on the rights of minorities; and to oppose any measures which demean and oppress individuals, communities, or groups of people.”
The British campaigner Peter Tatchell, of the gay and lesbian human rights group OutRage, condemned their separation. “The decision by the Malawian authorities to split up jailed lovers Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga is a cruel, malicious and vindictive attempt to cause the couple psychological distress and heartache,” he said.
“Previously, the couple were jailed together in Chichiri prison, where Tiwonge remains. Although held in separate cells, in Chichiri they were able to see each other briefly from time to time.
“Now they will have no contact at all. This move will be particularly hard for Steven. Of the two he is more vulnerable and stressed. Tiwonge, in contrast, is robust and resilient.”
Tatchell said the couple’s lawyers were optimistic that on appeal to the higher courts the 14-year sentence would be reduced or annulled.
“I hope they are right but I am sceptical, given that the high court refused to give Steven and Tiwonge bail and refused to rule that their prosecution was unconstitutional,” he said. “My fear is that the appeal court may reduce the jail term but not revoke it.”