Malawi’s first openly gay couple was ordered to serve a 14-year jail term, the maximum punishment allowed under a law that forbids homosexuality in the country. Details on the flipside
A judge sentenced a couple to the maximum 14 years in prison with hard labor under Malawi’s anti-gay legislation, and crowds jeered the two men as they were driven from the court house to jail Thursday.
The harsh sentence for unnatural acts and gross indecency had been expected after the same judge convicted Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza earlier this week under laws dating from the colonial era. The case has drawn international condemnation and sparked a debate on human rights in this conservative southern African country.
Chimbalanga, a 20-year-old hotel janitor, and his unemployed partner were arrested Dec. 27, the day after they celebrated their engagement with a party at the hotel where Chimbalanga worked — an apparent first in Malawi.
“Maximum sentences are intended for use for worst cases,” Magistrate Nyakwawa Usiwa Usiwa said as he delivered his sentence. “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 court house 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.”
Her rights watchdog has adopted Chimbalanga and Monjeza as prisoners of conscience, and would “continue to campaign on this matter and to work tirelessly to see that they are released unconditionally as soon as possible,” Kagari told The Associated Press by telephone from her office in Kampala, Uganda.
Mark Heywood, director of the South Africa-based AIDS Law Project called the sentence “outrageous and a violation of human rights.” He said activists should hold protests around the world against Malawi.
In a joint statement issued in London Thursday, lawmakers Henry Bellingham, Stephen O’Brien and Lynne Featherstone urged Malawi 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, Philip Crowley, an assistant secretary of state, expressed his country’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.
Malawi’s government has been defiant in the face of international criticism over the couple’s prosecution.
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 Centre for the Development of People, was at the court house 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.”
This should come as little surprise. Things are rough for gays in the US — but Africa is no joke. Remember the dead man they dug up in Senegal last month???
Human rights clearly aren’t the same everywhere — it’s absolutely extreme to rob these men of their freedom because of their decision to be openly gay. At the same time, cultural taboos against homosexuality have deep roots in many of these African nations and just because leadership in the Western world wants things to change — doesn’t mean the changes can be forced.
We wonder if the Western world will eventually turn to the same kind of trade embargoes that were used to bring an end to apartheid in South Africa. Do you think that’s what’s needed??? Or should we butt out of other countries’ laws?