Amnesty International has urged the Malawi authorities to immediately and unconditionally release two Malawian men, Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, who were arrested on 28 December 2009 and charged with "unnatural practices between males and gross public indecency".
Steven Monjeza (26) and Tiwonge Chimbalanga (20) were arrested by police in Malawi two days after they had had a 'traditional engagement ceremony' in Blantyre's Chirimba township. They were reportedly beaten by police while in custody. They appeared in court on 4 January and were remanded in custody to Monday 11 January. They are currently being held in Chichiri prison.
Amnesty says it considers individuals imprisoned solely for a consensual and private sexual relationship to be prisoners of conscience and calls for their immediate and unconditional release.
Amnesty has also criticised attempts by the Malawian authorities to subject the two men to medical examinations to ascertain whether they could be charged with sodomy. On Monday, the authorities attempted to have the men undergo forcible anal examinations to establish whether they had 'consummated' their engagement but this was aborted when they could not get an 'expert' to examine them.
Meanwhile, human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, from London, declared: "Malawi's anti-gay laws were not devised by Malawians. 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."
Amnesty International UK Director Kate Allen said: "Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga have committed no criminal offence and should be immediately and unconditionally released."
She continued: "The Malawian authorities' attempt to subject them to forcible anal examinations is appalling. Such practices, and the criminalisation of homosexuality in Malawi should be ended without delay."
Forcible anal examinations, without the men's consent, contravene the absolute prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment.
Such examinations to 'prove' they had had sexual relations with other men would not be able to confirm the allegations against the men - allegations of acts that should not be criminalised in the first place. They are in every case highly invasive, abusive, and profoundly humiliating. In addition, the doctors who conduct these examinations, by doing so forcibly, violate their ethical obligations towards people they examine.
Amnesty International also warns that the arrest of Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga risks driving underground men who have sex with men (MSM) in Malawi, making it more difficult to get access to information on HIV prevention and health services. Malawi's 2009 - 2013 National AIDS Strategy includes measures to work with MSM to combat the spread of HIV.
Amnesty International said that the young men need support from their community and government, not confinement to prison because of their sexual orientation. They should be released unconditionally and supported to recover from this traumatising experience.
On 26 December 2009, Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga held a traditional engagement ceremony in Blantyre's poor township of Chirimba. Two days later, the men were arrested by police after the story was reported in local newspapers.
On 28 December, they appeared before a magistrates court in Blantyre and the magistrate promised to make a ruling on 4 January 2010.
On 4 January the men appeared before the same magistrate and were denied bail "for their own safety" and "in the interest of justice". They were remanded until 11 January.
Again on 4 January, Malawian police arrested Bunker Kamba, an HIV/AIDS activist from the Centre for the Development of People (CEDEP), for possessing what police allege to be pornographic material. Bunker Kamba was arrested after police seized the material the organisation uses to educate MSM on HIV/AIDS. He handed himself to the police with his lawyers and was released on bail. Police are also reported to be looking for CEDEP's director, Gift Trapence, on the same matter.
In the formulation of Malawi's National AIDS Strategy in 2009, the Malawi government consulted widely, including on MSM, on ways of combating the spread of HIV in Malawi. In September, the government publicly acknowledged the need to include MSM in its HIV/AIDS strategy.