Commonwealth under pressure over homophobic persecution in Malawi

By Norman Miwambo

African and British human rights campaigners rallied outside the
Commonwealth's head quarters in London on Monday 22 March.
They were protesting against the prosecution and imprisonment of the Malawian
same-sex couple, Steven Monjeza (26) and Tiwonge Chimbalanga (20), on charges of
homosexuality, and against the Commonwealth's failure to condemn their
arrest and detention in Chichiri prison.
In his keynote during the protest in London, Edi Phiri, a gay Malawian who
fled his country after he was badly beaten and had threats to kill him said: “I urge my President and government to intervene to release Steven and Tiwonge.”
“These two men don't deserve the way they are suffering in jail,” said Phiri.

“The delay in the trial and the postponed verdict is a sign that the
government and judiciary are split. Some officials want to convict and
others don't. They keep on putting off the verdict. It is unfair to
treat Steven and Tiwonge like this.

“International solidarity protests are really important to make sure
these men get their freedom.

“Malawi's anti-gay laws are not African. They were imposed by the
British colonisers nearly two centuries ago,” said Mr Phiri.

Similar concerns were echoed by protest coordinator, Peter Tatchell,
of the London-based lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT)
human rights group OutRage!:

“The judge has refused Tiwonge and Steven bail. Imprisoning them for
three months without a verdict is an abuse of law and a violation of
their right to a swift and fair trial. These men are innocent until
proven guilty. So why are they in prison?” he queried.

“Tiwonge and Steven love each other and have harmed no one. But they
could be jailed for up to 14 years.

“This protest was organised in response to an appeal for help from the
jailed men.
From their prison cell in Malawi, Steven and Tiwonge sent a message to
me in London, urging international pressure to secure their release.

“Tiwonge and Steven have been arrested, prosecuted and held in jail
solely because of their sexual orientation. We want them released, all
charges dropped and the repeal of Malawi's anti-homosexuality laws.
These laws violate the equality and non-discrimination provisions of
Article 20 of the Malawian Constitution and Articles 2, 3 and 4 and
the African Charter of Human and People's Rights, which Malawi has
signed and pledged to uphold,” added Mr Tatchell.

Monday's demonstration was jointly sponsored by OutRage!, Black Gay
Men's Advisory Group, Gay Activists Alliance International, Red Room,
Rukus! Foundation and an informal coalition of black and African LGBT
activists in London.

The rally was co-compared by Dennis Hambridge and Davis Mac-Iyalla, a
gay Nigerian activist, both of Gay Activists Alliance International.

Other speakers were leading black and African LGBT campaigners,
including the Nigerian gay pastor, Rev Rowland Jide Macaulay, Dennis
Carney of the Black Gay Men's Advisory Group, Godwyns Onwuchekwa from
Nigeria and Skye Chirape from Zimbabwe.

The protest is the latest development in the international solidarity
campaign to support Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga.

Already, 67 British MPs have signed a House of Commons Early Day
Motion (EDM 564), which condemns the arrest and trial of Steven
Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga:

Amnesty International has adopted Steven and Tiwonge as “Prisoners of
Conscience” and is campaigning for their release:

Amnesty regards the two men as the equivalent of political prisoners.
The UK Director of Amnesty, Kate Allen, said:
“Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga have committed no criminal
offence and we adopted them as prisoners of conscience...It is vital
that as many people as possible join us in writing to the Malawi
authorities calling on them to release the two men.”

In a letter last week to the Malawian High Commissioner in London, Dr
Francis Moto, Mr Tatchell wrote:

“We respect Malawi as an independent nation, and merely ask that the
government and judiciary adhere to the equality and
anti-discrimination clause of the Malawian Constitution, which the
people of Malawi freely agreed as part of the transition from
dictatorship to democracy.”

Malawi is a member of the Commonwealth.

“The Commonwealth Secretary-General, Kamalesh Sharma, has failed to
condemn the arrest and jailing of Steven and Tiwonge, even though
equality and human rights are supposed to be key Commonwealth
principles,” added Mr Tatchell.

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“His silence is collusion with homophobia. As far as we can see, Mr
Sharma is failing to oppose the persecution of Steven and Tiwonge. He
is doing nothing to defend LGBT human rights anywhere. He appears to
not accept that gay rights are human rights.

“Of the 53 Commonwealth member states, over 40 still criminalise
same-sex relations, mostly under anti-gay laws that were originally
imposed by the British government in the nineteenth century, during
the period of colonial rule.

“These homophobic colonialist laws, which were retained after
independence, are wrecking the lives of LGBT people throughout the
Commonwealth. They criminalise otherwise law-abiding citizens and
contribute to a hostile social atmosphere which demonises LGBT people
as unnatural, abnormal, inferior and criminal.

“It is outrageous that nearly all Commonwealth member states persecute
same-sex partners, with penalties ranging up to life imprisonment for
consenting sex between gay and bisexual adults in private. Even more
outrageous, the Commonwealth is saying and doing nothing to defend its
LGBT citizens,” concluded Mr Tatchell.