malawi president pardons gay couple

BLANTYRE - Malawi's president has pardoned and ordered the release of a gay couple sentenced to 14 years in prison, but said that homosexuality remains illegal.

BLANTYRE - Malawi's president has pardoned and ordered the release of a gay couple sentenced to 14 years in prison, but said that homosexuality remains illegal.

Activists were searching for a safe house for the couple, fearing they could be attacked on release.

Malawi has faced international condemnation for the conviction and harsh sentencing of Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza.

President Bingu wa Mutharika announced the pardon on Saturday, saying it was on "humanitarian grounds only", during a press conference with UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon in Lilongwe.

Earlier in the week the top UN Aids official and the head of an international donor group met Mutharika in Malawi and expressed concern that criminalising homosexuality would keep a vulnerable group from seeking HIV-Aids counselling and treatment.

Joseph Amon of Human Rights Watch said the president was no doubt responding to the international outcry over the case.

"I hope that other leaders of African countries with anti-gay laws see that this is just not acceptable in the international community."

Malawi is among 37 African countries with anti-gay laws.

In Senegal police have rounded up men suspected of being homosexual and beaten them, and a mob last year pulled the corpse of a gay man from his grave, spat on it and dumped it at the home of his elderly parents.

In Zimbabwe this month, two employees of a gay organisation spent six days in jail on allegations of possessing indecent material and displaying a placard seen as insulting to President Robert Mugabe, an outspoken critic of homosexuality.

In Uganda, a proposed law would impose the death penalty for some gays.

Even in South Africa, the only country that recognises gay rights, lesbians have been gang-raped.

In Malawi, a judge convicted and sentenced Chimbalanga and Monjeza earlier this month on charges of unnatural acts and gross indecency, both colonial-era laws. They were arrested in December, a day after they celebrated their engagement.

Crowds of Malawians had heckled the two during court hearings, with some saying after they were sentenced to 14 years they should be imprisoned longer.

Undule Mwakasungure, a gay rights activist in Malawi, said he was concerned about the couple's safety, and working with other activists to find a safe house for them and to possibly arrange for them to leave the country at least temporarily.

"There is homophobic sentiment. I think they might be harmed," Mwakasungure said.

Edi Phiri, who fled Malawi for Britain five years ago after being beaten because he was gay, said the two might need to seek asylum outside Malawi.

"They will be out of prison, but what will happen next?" Phiri said. "The community will see them as outcasts. I don't think they will be safe in Malawi."

A cousin of Chimbalanga, Maxwell Manda, said earlier in the week that Chimbalanga wanted to leave Malawi on his release.

Mwakasungure and Phiri said the pardon was welcome and could fuel campaigns to overturn Malawi's anti-gay legislation and try to change attitudes.

"The public needs to appreciate that the world is changing," Mwakasungure said.

"It won't be easy. But I think that as time goes, people will start to appreciate.

"We're not talking about changing the law today or tomorrow. But we have to start the process."

Mutharika's comments on Saturday underlined the challenge activists face.

"These boys committed a crime against our culture, against our religion and against our laws," he said

"However, as head of state, I hereby pardon them and therefore order their immediate release without any conditions."

But he added, "We don't condone marriages of this nature. It's unheard of in Malawi and it's illegal."

Ban praised Mutharika's decision but said: "It is unfortunate that laws criminalise people based on sexuality. Laws that criminalise sexuality should be repealed."

While the order was immediate, a prison spokesperson said they had not received notification to release the two men by Saturday afternoon.

Mwakasungure said he hoped their release would be delayed until today or tomorrow to give him time to prepare a safe house. - Sapa-AP


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