14 years for Malawi couple is "brutal"

By Norman Miwambo
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Is Malawi slipping back to the mentality of the Hastings Banda dictatorship? Similar questions are now being asked by human rights activists all over the world as the condemnation of a jail sentence slapped onto lovers anger carries on.

Fourteen years in jail because of having passion for each has been described as a “Brutal” punishment slapped onto Steven Monjeza (26) and Tiwonge Chimbalanga (20) the Malawian gay lovers. The 14- years' sentence into prison could be served alongside hard labour work under Malawian anti homosexuality legislation.

“This is an appalling, vindictive and brutal sentence, which tramples on Malawi's constitution, violates personal privacy and reverses the country's commitment to human rights,” said London-based human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell of the OutRage!.

Mr Tatchell added that: "Steven and Tiwonge love each other and have harmed no one. Yet they get a sentence more severe than some rapists, armed robbers and killers.”

In an international recognition trial, Judge Nyakwawa Usiwa Usiwa delivered a controversial sentence [according to human rights activists] saying that the court was representing Malawian society which doesn't want to see its son getting married to other sons or conducting engagement ceremonies. Attorney, Mauya Msuku, representing the lover-birds said his clients would contest the verdict.

“Even if they are jailed for 20 years you can't change their sexuality,” Trapence added.

Expressing concerns over the sentence, Mr Tatchell said: “With so much hatred and violence in Malawi, it is sick that the court has jailed these two men for loving and caring for each other.”

“The sentence echoes the era of dictatorship under President Hastings Banda, when personal prejudices determined law enforcement, and when individual rights were crushed and dissenters persecuted,” Mr Tatchell added.

He was commenting on the 14 year jail sentence for homosexuality, which was handed down, on Tuesday, May 18, against Monjeza and Chimbalanga in the city of Blantyre-Malawi.

Mr Tatchell has been supporting and advocating for the jailed men since their arrest and detention in December last year; helping arrange prison visits and the delivery of food parcels, medicine, letters of support and clothes to the detained men.

In the 1970s and 80s, Mr Tatchell supported the democracy movement in Malawi and campaigned for the release of the country's political prisoners.

“Fourteen years with hard labour could kill Steven and Tiwonge. Prison conditions are appallingly unhealthy,” he said.

“Detainees die in custody. Infectious diseases like TB are rife. Medical treatment is sub-standard. Food rations are very poor nutritional value; mostly maize porridge, beans and water, causing malnutrition. After only five months behind bars, Steven has been seriously ill and has not received proper medical treatment.”

Commenting on the verdict, Mr Tatchell added: “The judge has violated Article 20 of Malawi's own constitution, which guarantees equal treatment and non-discrimination to all citizens. The law under which they were convicted is a discriminatory law that only applies to same-sex relations. It is unconstitutional. The law in Malawi is not supposed to discriminate.

According to the Constitution of Malawi - Article 20: Discrimination of persons in any form is prohibited and all persons are...guaranteed equal and effective protection against discrimination on grounds of race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, nationality, ethnic or social origin, disability, property, birth or other status. "Or other status" means on other grounds, which includes sexual orientation.

This trial has also set a enormous test to the African Charter on Human and People's Rights - Articles 2, 3 and 4: Article 2, Every individual shall be entitled to the enjoyment of the rights and freedoms recognized and guaranteed in the present Charter without distinction of any kind such as race, ethnic group, color, sex, language, religion, political or any other opinion, national and social origin, fortune, birth or other status. While Article 3, says; Every individual shall be equal before the law. 2. Every individual shall be entitled to equal protection of the law. Yet Article 4 of the Africa Charter on Human and People's Rights-

Human beings are inviolable. Every human being shall be entitled to respect for his life and the integrity of his person. No one may be arbitrarily deprived of this right.

However, over 30 African countries that are signatory to the charter fail to protect and encourage anti-homosexuality policies. In Uganda a Member of Parliament (MP) David Bahati who is also a member of the country's ruling part National Resistance Movement (NRM), designed an Anti-gay Bill which is under parliament, although, it also received enormous protests including world's powerful men. Mr Bahati's Anti-gay Bill proposes to have all homosexuals sentenced to death if found guilty. President Obama called it 'odious'

The trail became well-known when 67 British MPs signed a House of Commons Early Day Motion (EDM 564), which condemns the arrest and trial of Monjeza and Tiwonge.

Judge Nyakwawa verdict against the gay lovers now remains a thorn for the country as human rights activists are continuing to lobby the International community and donor countries to withdraw aid to Malawi due to violation of human rights. The law of the land remain to be tested, to either revoke the verdict or risks to forfeit 40 percent of aid towards Malawi's development budget from donor countries.

“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.

"I expect both men will appeal against the verdict and sentence. Steven and Tiwonge's best hope is that a higher court will overturn this unjust, cruel verdict; although a more positive outcome on appeal is uncertain, given the high-level homophobia that exists in Malawian society, including among the judiciary.

"The magistrate was biased from outset. He refused the two men bail, which is very unusual in cases of non-violent offences. In Malawi, bail is normal. It is often granted to thieves and violent criminals. Denying Steven and Tiwonge bail was an act of vindictiveness.

Mr Tatchell who is most remembered for trying to affect a citizen arrest against Zimbabwe's leader Robert Mugabe on three occasions, has appealed to all world to condemn the verdict: "I appeal to governments worldwide, especially the South African government, to condemn this harsh, bigoted judgement and to urge its reversal," said Mr Tatchell.

Prior to the verdict, Tiwonge and Steven issued a defiant message from their prison cell. It affirmed their love for each other and thanked their supporters in Malawi and worldwide.

Tiwonge said: "I love Steven so much. 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."

"We have come a long way and even if our family relatives are not happy, I will not and never stop loving Tiwonge," said Steven.

The two men's messages were relayed from inside Chichiri Prison in Blantyre, Malawi, to Peter Tatchell of the LGBT human rights group OutRage! in London, England.

Tiwonge and Steven stressed their gratitude for the support they have received from fellow Malawians and from people around the world:

"We are thankful for the people who have rallied behind us during this difficult time. We are grateful to the people who visit and support us, which really makes us feel to be members of a human family; otherwise we would feel condemned," said Tiwonge.

Steven added: "All the support is well appreciated. We are grateful to everybody who is doing this for us. May people please continue the commendable job...Prison life is very difficult."

Peter Tatchell expressed his admiration of the two men:

"Steven and Tiwonge are showing immense fortitude and courage. They declared their love in a society where many people - not all - are very intolerant and homophobic. This was a very brave thing to do. Although suffering in prison, they are unbowed. They continue to maintain their love and affirm their human right to be treated with dignity and respect," said Mr Tatchell.

"They have taken a pioneering stand for the right to love. They love each other, have harmed no one and believe that love should not be a crime. It is nobody's business what they do in the privacy of their own home. There is no evidence that they have committed any crime under Malawian law. They should never have been put on trial. Even prior to their conviction, they had already spent nearly five months behind bars.

"OutRage! is supporting Steven and Tiwonge. For the last four months, we have arranged extra food to supplement the men's meagre, poor quality prison rations.

"We pay tribute to the other people and organisations who are giving legal and medical assistance to the detained men. This is a huge help. Steven and Tiwonge have asked me to communicate their appreciation," said Mr Tatchell.

The executive Director of the Centre for the Development of People, Gift Trapence who attended the court on Thursday during the sentence, said: “How can they get 14 years simply for loving one another?”