Steven Monjeza (left) and Tiwonge Chimbalanga appear in court today.
BLANTYRE, Malawi – Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, the gay couple who have been adopted as “Prisoners of Conscience” by Amnesty International, were convicted Tuesday of unnatural acts and gross indecency.
All because they celebrated their engagement in December with a “wedding” party at a beachside resort that drew crowds of curious onlookers. Monjeza, 26, and Chimbalanga, 20, were arrested on Dec. 27 and have been imprisoned since.
The couple will be sentenced on Thursday, said Nyakwawa Usiwa, Blantyre chief resident magistrate. They face up to 14 years in prison.
Malawi, like most African nations, shows little tolerance of gays and lesbians. The tiny, landlocked nation in southern Africa has been frequently visited by American evangelists, who are accused of fanning the homophobia that is prevalent throughout the continent as a tool for gaining converts.
Homosexuality is illegal in at least 36 African countries. Uganda, for example, is considering the so-called “Kill the Gays” bill. Some nations governed by Shia law harshly punish homosexuals. Even in South Africa, where marriage equality is legal and gay rights have been afforded, hoodlums have inflicted “corrective” rapes on lesbians.
The Malawi case has drawn international attention and widespread condemnation, especially in Europe and North America.
The guilty verdict was expected, but gay rights activists had held out hope that international pressure might have spared the couple. Manjeza was reportedly seriously ill last month, and his health is currently unknown.
On one hand, the Malawi case has helped inspired a fledging gay rights movement in many parts of Africa, where gays and lesbians are routinely harassed, attacked and even driven from their home regions.
On the other hand, the Malawi case has driven many gays and lesbians back in the closet over fear for their safety.
Michaela Clayton, of AIDS & Rights Alliance For Southern Africa, told the Associated Press that the verdict could have chilling effects across Africa.
Clayton said that homophobia might be further encouraged by governments who are resentful of foreign pressure and the threat of withholding funding. She also thinks it could affect the fight against AIDS, a pandemic in many parts of Africa, because many gays and lesbians could be forced underground.
Peter Tatchell, a human rights campaigner with OutRage in London, called the Malawi verdict “unjust and cruel.”
He has followed the case since late December.
“This is an outrageous verdict,” Tatchell told PinkPaper.com. “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.
“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.