BLANTYRE, Malawi – A judge sentenced a couple to the maximum 14 years in prison for unnatural acts and gross indecency Thursday under Malawi's anti-gay legislation.
The harsh sentence had been expected in this conservative southern African country after the same judge convicted Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza earlier this week under laws dating from the colonial era.
Chimbalanga, a 20-year-old hotel janitor, and his unemployed partner were arrested Dec. 27, the day after they celebrated their engagement with a party at the hotel where Chimbalanga worked — an apparent first in Malawi.
"These offenses carry with them a sense of shock against the morals of the Malawi society," Magistrate Nyakwawa Usiwa Usiwa said Thursday, explaining why he felt compelled to impose the harshest sentence.
Michelle Kagari, deputy Africa director of Amnesty International called the sentence "an outrage."
Her rights watchdog has adopted Chimbalanga and Monjeza as prisoners of conscience, and would "continue to campaign on this matter and to work tirelessly to see that they are released unconditionally as soon as possible," Kagari told The Associated Press by telephone from her office in Kampala, Uganda.
Mark Heywood, director of the South Africa-based AIDS Law Project called the sentence "outrageous and a violation of human rights." He said activists should hold protests around the world against Malawi.
Malawi's government has been defiant in the face of international criticism over the couple's prosecution.
Betsy Chirambo, an adviser to President Bingu wa Mutharika, expressed concern over calls by some activists for the West to withdraw aid to Malawi because of the case. Up to 40 percent of Malawi's development budget comes from foreign donors.
"It is not our culture for a man to marry a man," Chirambo said this week. "That is not even in our constitution. Some of these rights are not good for our culture."
The government has been backed by religious leaders in the country who have equated homosexuality with Satanism.
But the debate also has emboldened some rights activists in the southern African country. The independent Center for the Development of People was recently formed by Malawians to fight for the rights of homosexuals and other minorities.
Homosexuality is illegal in at least 37 countries in Africa including Malawi. In Uganda, lawmakers are considering a bill under which homosexuals could be sentenced to life in prison and "repeat offenders" could be executed. Even in South Africa, the only African country that recognizes gay rights, gangs have raped lesbians.
Gay people forced underground in Africa are unlikely to seek counseling and treatment for AIDS, activists say. In Malawi, nearly 1 million people — an estimated 12 percent of the population — are living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.