- The Blantyre court today gave a young gay couple the maximum sentence of 14 years of imprisonment over "gross indecency" and "unnatural acts". The sentence may lead to cut in donor aid to Malawi.
Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga on Tuesday were convicted for "gross indecency" and "unnatural acts" after holding a traditional engagement ceremony in Malawi in December. The young couple in their twenties have been imprisoned ever since.
Today, the judge in Blantyre, Malawi's second city, handed out the maximum sentence for the offence. Sentencing the couple to 14 years in prison, Judge Nyakwawa Usiwa-Usiwa explained he wanted to protect the general public in Malawi "from people like you."
"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," said the judge.
According to press reports from Blantyre, the defence lawyer of the gay couple has already announced that the harsh ruling would be appealed.
In Malawi, a country where the issue of homosexuality had never been discussed in public before the December arrest of the couple, the case has caused large public interest and discussions. The Blantyre courtroom was packed with spectators and crowds gathered outside the court.
Most Malawians express shock and outrage about the mere existence of homosexuality in their country, supporting the harsh sentence. But the sudden appearance of a public debate about homosexuality has also opened the eyes and minds of many liberal Malawians, holding the country should do away with its criminalisation of sexual minorities.
Civil society groups and many intellectuals in Malawi have pointed out the human rights aspect of sentencing a couple to a prison term over their mutual and consensual love. Centre for Development of People (CEDAP) and the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR) are two of the main Malawian groups suddenly advocating for the human rights of sexual minorities in the country.
CEDEP this week strongly condemned the conviction, saying the ruling "undermines Malawi's commitment to the rule of law and jeopardises the human rights of all Malawians." Together with CHRR, CEDEP now is urging Malawian lawmakers to change the British colonial laws criminalising homosexuality.
Also some Malawian politicians are seeing that the harsh sentence is a step in the wrong direction for the impoverished Southern African nation. Malawi has seen massive international media coverage over the court case, in most cases very negative. Even reactions in South Africa are strongly negative, and there is a growing sense that Malawi is out of tune with its main international partners.
Malawi is one of the world's most aid dependent nations and donors have reacted strongly to the conviction. Main donor Britain expressed its "dismay" at the sentence. The US government called the case "a step backwards" for Malawi. Key Scandinavian donors, including Sweden and Norway, have put the rights of sexual minorities high on their agenda and have threatened to reduce aid levels to Malawi.
But while parts of Malawian society are starting to consider a softening of the country's laws criminalising homosexuality, President Bingu wa Mutharika is hardening his stance. The President last month denounced homosexuality as "un-Malawian," "evil" and "disgusting" and linked it to corruption, violence, theft and prostitution.
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