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article imageMalawian gay couple’s conviction is ‘an outrageous verdict’

By Andrew John     May 18, 2010 in Lifestyle
A gay couple in Malawi have been convicted of “unnatural acts” and “gross indecency” because of their same-gender relationship. And a campaigner says it's an “outrageous verdict”.
The trial of Steven Monjeza, 26, and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, 20, has drawn worldwide condemnation, largely because of Malawi’s archaic, colonial-era laws on homosexuality.
Monjeza and Chimbalanga had been jailed since their arrest last December 27, the day they celebrated their engagement “with a party that drew crowds of curious, jeering onlookers”, reports the Associated Press (AP).
The couple will be sentenced Thursday, said Blantyre chief resident magistrate Nyakwawa Usiwa. The couple could be imprisoned for up to 14 years.
Homosexuality is illegal in at least 37 countries in Africa. “In Uganda,” says the AP, “lawmakers are considering a bill that would sentence homosexuals to life in prison and include capital punishment for ‘repeat offenders’.”
In the UK, the human-rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has condemned the conviction of the couple.
“This is an outrageous verdict. While Steven and Tiwonge freely confirmed their love for each other, there was was no credible evidence that they had committed any illegal homosexual acts,” he says. Tatchell has been supporting and advocating for the men since their arrest and detention in December last year.
“The law under which they were convicted is a discriminatory law that only applies to same-sex relations. It is unconstitutional. Article 20 of Malawi’s constitution guarantees equality and non-discrimination. The law in Malawi is not supposed to discriminate,” Tatchell said.
“Malawi’s antigay 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.
“I expect both men will now appeal against the verdict and against any sentence that is handed down. Steven and Tiwonge’s best hope is that a higher court will overturn this unjust, cruel verdict.
“With so much hatred and violence in the world, it is bizarre that any court would criminalise two people for loving each other.
“The magistrate was biased from outset. He refused the two men bail, which is very unusual in cases of nonviolent offences. In Malawi, bail is normal. It is often granted to robbers and violent criminals. Denying Steven and Tiwonge bail was an act of vindictiveness.
“I appeal to governments worldwide, especially the South African government, to condemn this harsh, bigoted judgement and to urge its reversal,” Tatchell added.
Defiant message
Before the verdict, Monjeza and Chimbalanga issued a defiant message from their prison cell. It affirmed their love for each other and thanked their supporters in Malawi and worldwide.
Chimbalanga said: “I love Steven so much. If people or the world cannot give me the chance and freedom to continue living with him as my lover, then I am better off to die here in prison. Freedom without him is useless and meaningless.”
Monjeza said: “We have come a long way and, even if our family relatives are not happy, I will not and never stop loving Tiwonge.”
The two men’s messages were relayed from inside Chichiri Prison in Blantyre, Malawi, to Tatchell, who speaks for the gay human-rights group OutRage! in London.
The couple stressed their gratitude for the support they have received from fellow Malawians and from people around the world:
“We are thankful for the people who have rallied behind us during this difficult time. We are grateful to the people who visit and support us, which really makes us feel to be members of a human family; otherwise we would feel condemned,” said Chimbalanga.
Monjeza added: “All the support is well appreciated. We are grateful to everybody who is doing this for us. May people please continue the commendable job . . . Prison life is very difficult.”
Tatchell expressed his admiration of the two men: “Steven and Tiwonge are showing immense fortitude and courage. They declared their love in a society where many people – not all – are very intolerant and homophobic. This was a very brave thing to do. Although suffering in prison, they are unbowed. They continue to maintain their love and affirm their human right to be treated with dignity and respect.
“They have taken a pioneering stand for the right to love. They love each other, have harmed no one and believe that love should not be a crime. It is nobody’s business what they do in the privacy of their own home. There is no evidence that they have committed any crime under Malawian law. They should never have been put on trial. Even prior to their conviction, they had already spent nearly five months behind bars.
“OutRage! is supporting Steven and Tiwonge. For the last four months, we have arranged extra food to supplement the men’s meagre, poor quality prison rations.
“We pay tribute to the other people and organisations who are giving legal and medical assistance to the detained men. This is a huge help. Steven and Tiwonge have asked me to communicate their appreciation.”
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