A same-sex couple in Malawi have received a criminal conviction for going through a traditional engagement ceremony. Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga were found guilty of homosexuality, which is illegal under Malawian law.
The judgement was delivered by a magistrate today (18 May) after months of delay. The couple plan to appeal to a higher court.
Human rights campaigners argue that the Malawian law banning homosexuality is in breach of the country's constitution. They also point out that the law relates only to sexual activity and that there is no credible evidence of sexual relations between Monjeza and Chimbalanga.
"This is an outrageous verdict,” said the human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, "With so much hatred and violence in the world, it is bizarre that any court would criminalise two people for loving each other”.
Amnesty International has already adopted Monjeza and Chimbalanga as prisoners of conscience.
“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,” insisted Tatchell.
He argued that the ban on homosexuality is unconstitutional, as Article 20 of Malawi's constitution guarantees equality and non-discrimination.
Tatchell refuted the notion that international criticism of the ruling involved outsiders interfering in Malawi's internal affairs.
"Malawi's anti-gay laws were not devised by Malawians,” he said, “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 magistrate who made the ruling had already attracted criticism for refusing bail to the two men. Campaigners say this is unusual in Malawi when the criminal allegation in question does not involve violence.
Prior to the verdict, the couple issued a message from prison, asserting their love for each other and thanking their many supporters worldwide.
"I love Steven so much,” said Chimbalanga, “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."
Monjeza added that whatever happened, he would “never stop loving Tiwonge”.
"We are thankful for the people who have rallied behind us during this difficult time,” added Chimbalanga, “We are grateful to the people who visit and support us, which really makes us feel to be members of a human family”.
Tatchell urged concerned individuals and groups to lobby the Malawian ambassador in their own countries, to add to the pressure on the Malawian government and to send messages of support to the couple in prison.
"Steven and Tiwonge are showing immense fortitude and courage,” he said, “They continue to maintain their love and affirm their human right to be treated with dignity and respect”.