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Gay couple could get 14 years in prison

By David McKenzie, CNN
  • Couple charged under Malawi's colonial-era sodomy laws
  • Couple arrested after December engagement, face sentencing on Tuesday
  • Malawi is conservative Christian nation

(CNN) -- A gay couple in Malawi who celebrated their union in a traditional engagement ceremony could be sentenced to up to 14 years of hard labor, according to lawyers familiar with the case.

Steven Monjenza, 26, and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, 20, conducted a traditional engagement ceremony in late December in Chirimba, near Blantyre. After news reports surfaced of the same-sex engagement, they were rounded up by Malawi's police and charged under colonial-era sodomy laws. Their sentencing is Tuesday.

The arrest received some popular support in the conservative southern African nation, but sparked outrage among Malawian and international gay rights campaigners.

The presiding judge refused bail for the men, who are being held in Chichiru Prison in Blantyre.

"It is quite outrageous," said Peter Tatchell, a gay rights activist from Britain who is supporting the pair. "In Malawi, people facing much more serious felony charges for serious crimes usually get bail."

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have called for the release of the young men. The Malawi Law Society said the case has been driven by prejudice and not jurisprudence.

"Our law is outdated," said Jabbar Alide, secretary of the Law Society. "Our constitution grants freedoms, but most local laws do not fit."

The Malawi constitutional court refused to review the case. And the court and police have maintained that they are only upholding the law.

The actions of the state has many supporters. Malawi, like much of Africa, is a deeply conservative country and the majority of the population is Christian.

"Most people are repugnant towards homosexuality," said Canaan Phiri, secretary general of the Malawi Council of Churches (MCC). "People do not declare their homosexuality because people are against this."

The MCC issued a statement charging that the homosexual act is a violation of the Bible and underlining its support of the law making it illegal.

But activists in Malawi and in several other countries say that the country's constitution -- which outlaws discrimination -- is not being upheld.

The ultimate cost is a personal one. Tatchell says he recently received a defiant message from Chimbalanga from prison.

"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," the message said. "Freedom without him is useless and meaningless."