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Malawi gay couple convicted of indecency, unnatural acts

From David McKenzie, CNN
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Gay couple convicted of indecency
  • Gay couple found guilty of gross indecency and unnatural acts, according to witness
  • They were charged under Malawi's colonial-era sodomy laws
  • The Malawi Law Society said the prosecution has been driven by prejudice
  • Sentencing will be on May 20

(CNN) -- A court in Malawi has found a gay couple guilty of gross indecency and unnatural acts, according to witnesses who heard the verdict Tuesday.

Sentencing will take place May 20. The two young men face up to 14 years of hard labor.

Steven Mojenza, 26, and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, 20, were arrested in December at their home in Blantyre, Malawi, for professing their love in a traditional engagement ceremony. They were rounded up after news reports surfaced, charged under colonial-era sodomy laws and detained at Chichiru Prison without bail.

Their arrests received some popular support in the conservative southern African nation, but sparked condemnation by gay rights activists and human rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which have called for the release of the couple.

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"This is an outrageous verdict," said Peter Tatchell, a London-based activist who has been supporting and advocating for the men.

"While Steven and Tiwonge freely confirmed their love for each other, there was no credible evidence that they had committed any illegal homosexual acts," Tatchell said. "With so much hatred and violence in the world, it is bizarre that any court would criminalise two people for loving each other."

Gift Trapence, executive director of the Malawi human rights group Centre for the Development of People (CEDEP), said the two men had supporters present in court Tuesday. But there were also those who called for their conviction.

We need to decide whether we regard minority groups as equal to others in terms of their human rights.
--Gift Trapence, Malawi human rights group

"We have a reached a point in Malawi where we need to decide whether we regard minority groups as equal to others in terms of their human rights," Trapence said.

Trapence and Tatchell both said that Malawi was using colonial-era laws imposed on the African nation by Britain. Before British occupation, Malawi had no such laws on the books.

"They need to be updated," Trapence said.

Lawyers hope to take the matter to the High Court.

"Steven and Tiwonge's best hope is that a higher court will overturn this unjust, cruel verdict," said Tatchell, who heads the group OutRage.

Homosexuality is illegal in Malawi -- as it is in most African nations -- and government officials have said they are simply upholding the law.

But activists in Malawi say Article 20 of the country's constitution -- which outlaws discrimination -- is being violated. The Malawi Law Society said the prosecution of the two men has been driven by prejudice -- not jurisprudence.

Anthony Kamanga, Malawi's solicitor general and secretary for justice and constitutional affairs, said the law does not conflict with the constitution, and denied the charge of prejudice.

"I do not think that in this particular case that these two people were prejudiced against," he said. "We have no law that criminalizes sexual orientation, just certain sexual acts."

Kamanga said the criticism is unfair.

"For some reason, this case has been blown out of proportion," he charged. "The courts have been fair to these two men."

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

Ahead of the verdict, the two men thanked their supporters, remaining defiant in a statement released through Tatchell.

In it, 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."