- The two Malawi men detained for three months over homosexual acts will face a full trial in April, a Blantyre court ruled today. The two risk prison sentences of up to 14 years.
The two men were detained almost three months ago and have been in custody since then. They are accused of "unnatural offences" and "indecent practices between males" - in reality homosexuality - which is a criminal offence according to colonial parts of Malawi's penal code.
The lawyers of the alleged gay couple hoped to avoid further prosecution as the two were presented to a Blantyre court today. They claimed the arrest were contrary to human rights and the Malawi constitution, which guaranteed the privacy and non-discrimination of the 26 and 20-year-old men.
But the court found the two had been caught in a criminal act and therefore agreed a full court trial must be held. Also a request for bail was rejected. The trial was to be held in April, the judge finally decided.
The two men arrested by police on 28 December 2009, two days after holding an engagement ceremony in the Chirimba township of Blantyre. They do not deny their sexual orientation, but hold they have a constitutional right not to be discriminated against.
Since their arrest, the two have been subjected to inhumane treatments, according to their lawyers. They reportedly have been beaten several times and subjected to forced anal examinations to "confirm" sodomy charges.
Malawi is a deeply conservative country, where modern impulses and values were held back for decades during the Banda dictatorship. The trial will be a test case regarding homosexuality in a country, where the majority of the population had not even heard about sexual minorities before the two young boys have dominated media front pages since their arrest.
As the issue of homosexuality suddenly emerged in Malawi, also liberal forces have woken up. A pro-gay group has been formed - the Centre for the Development of People - as the first in Malawi. In the capital, several politicians say Malawi should reconsider anti-gay legislation, and the Anglican Church - the dominant in the country - even had its first discussion on how to react to homosexuality. Not surprisingly, a majority of church leaders were negative.
The strongest reactions to the arrest and continued legal proceedings against the two young men has come from abroad. Several of Malawi's major foreign donors have had talks with the country's government, protesting the discrimination of homosexuals as human rights violations and even indicating this could influence development aid levels for Malawi.
The human rights group Amnesty International today called on Malawian authorities to "immediately and unconditionally release" the two men. "The trial of these men, purely on the basis of their real or perceived sexual orientation, is a gross violation of their rights to freedom of conscience, expression and privacy," said Véronique Aubert of the group. Criminalisation of homosexuality and gender identity was banned under several treaties ratified by Malawi, she added.
The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) today said it was "dismayed" by today's ruling. "This ruling is the most recent in a line of deeply troubling decisions and actions by the Malawian authorities in this case, including the decision to deny bail to [the two], claiming that their continued incarceration is for their own safety," said Chivuli Ukwimi from IGLHRC's Cape Town offices.
But the international condemnation will not convince the conservative majority in Malawi. Bishop Joseph Bvumbwe has already denounced Western donors for blackmail and Malawians at large look at homosexuality as un-African and foreign. But politicians may nevertheless give into pressures as Malawi is totally dependent on foreign aid.
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