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No sooner had Malawi's courts jailed two men to 14 years of hard labor for having a gay relationship than human rights groups around the world issued protests charging the sentence was harsh and unwarranted.
Hundreds jeered Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza, handcuffed together as they were driven away in a police van from Blantyre court to jail. Other Malawians, however, protested against the sentence and held up a rainbow banner representing gay rights.
Chimbalanga, 33, a hotel janitor, and Monjeza, 26, were arrested Dec. 27, the day after they celebrated their engagement with a party at Chimbalanga's workplace.
"We are sitting here to represent the Malawi society which I do not believe is ready at this point to see its sons getting married to other sons or conducting engagement ceremonies," said magistrate Nyakwawa Usiwa Usiwa, handing down the maximum sentence, according to an AP report.
The lawyer for the two said they would appeal.
Amnesty International called the sentence an "outrage" and adopted the two men as prisoners of conscience.
The United States government said the "criminalization of sexual orientation and gender identity is a step backward in the protection of human rights in Malawi," in a statement from from Philip Crowley, an assistant secretary of state."This is an appalling, vindictive and brutal sentence, which tramples on Malawi's constitution, violates personal privacy and reverses the country's commitment to human rights.
"Steven and Tiwonge love each other and have harmed no one. Yet they get a sentence more severe than some rapists, armed robbers and killers. With so much hatred and violence in Malawi, it is sick that the court has jailed these two men," said London-based human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell of the gay rights group OutRage!.
"The sentence echoes the era of dictatorship under President Hastings Banda, when personal prejudices determined law enforcement, and when individual rights were crushed and dissenters persecuted," he said.
Tatchell said the sentence goes against Malawi's own constitution which protects people against discrimination.
"Malawi's anti-gay laws were not devised by Malawians," said Tatchell. "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.
The controversy has galvanized some Malawians to campaign against the convictions and the anti-gay laws, which date back to British colonial times. The Centre for the Development of People was recently formed by Malawians to campaign for the rights of homosexuals and other minorities.
Malawi's government has been defiant of international pressure. President Bingu wa Mutharika expressed concern at calls by activists for Western governments to withdraw aid to Malawi over the case. Up to 40 percent of Malawi's development budget comes from foreign donors.
Homosexuality is illegal in 37 countries in Africa, mostly as a result of laws dating back to the colonial powers.