BLANTYRE, Malawi – A gay couple arrested after throwing a party to celebrate their engagement in this conservative southern African country were convicted Tuesday of unnatural acts and gross indecency. They face up to 14 years in prison.
The two men, who had been unusually open about their sexual orientation on a continent that largely outlaws homosexuality, were jailed since their arrest Dec. 27, a day after the party that drew crowds of curious, jeering onlookers.
The trial itself also attracted crowds of Malawians ridiculing the couple.
Steven Monjeza, 26, and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, 20, face up to 14 years in prison at their sentencing hearing Thursday, according to the judge.
Undule Mwakasungula, a gay rights activist in Malawi, said the couple's decision to declare their relationship with an engagement ceremony, an apparent first in Malawi, appears to have been personal, not political. Mwakasungula said others have been prosecuted under the law, but this case was different because the two men were open about their homosexuality.
"This is the most publicized case related to that penal code," he said.
The government, backed by Malawi church leaders, say it is clear the two men broke the law. Religious officials say homosexuality is "sinful" and the West should not be allowed to use its financial power to force Malawi to accept homosexuality. Malawi relies on donors for 40 percent of its development budget.
The controversy, though, has emboldened some human rights activists in Malawi. The Center for the Development of People was recently formed to fight for the rights of homosexuals and other minorities.
Mwakasungula said he did not know the couple before their arrest, but that he and other activists have supported them since. He said they were relaxed before the verdict, but concerned that if they were released, they could be attacked by Malawians who have threatened them.
Mwakasungula said activists had planned to take the two to a safe house if they had been found innocent, but that given the laws and the climate in Malawi, a guilty verdict had been expected.
"It's a challenge in terms of us pushing for legal reform," Mwakasungula said. "We can't be using a law that was enacted in 1940."
The verdict is "extremely disturbing," said Michaela Clayton of the Namibia-based AIDS & Rights Alliance for Southern Africa, saying it could encourage anti-gay sentiment in the region as well as set back the fight against AIDS. Gay people forced underground in Africa are unlikely to seek counseling and treatment for AIDS, she and other activists said.
Homosexuality is illegal in at least 37 countries on the continent. In Uganda, lawmakers are considering a bill that would sentence homosexuals to life in prison and include capital punishment for "repeat offenders." Even in South Africa, the only African country that recognizes gay rights, gangs have raped lesbians.
Clayton said gays and other minorities in Africa had in recent years become more assertive about their sexual orientation and about claiming their rights, which could have led to the backlash.
"We have to keep on being strategic about the way we push this agenda forward," she said.
Priti Patel of the Southern African Litigation Centre, an independent rights group, said Monjeza and Chimbalanga could appeal on the grounds that the laws under which they were prosecuted violate the country's 1994 constitution. But an earlier attempt by their lawyer to have the case thrown out on those grounds was rejected.
Malawi's government has been defiant in the face of international criticism over the prosecution of Monjeza and Chimbalanga. Months before the verdict, Information Minister Leckford Mwanza Thoto said it was clear the two had broken the law.
Associated Press Writer Donna Bryson in Johannesburg contributed to this report.