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Malawi Frees Couple Imprisoned for Sodomy

Jim Burroway

May 29th, 2010

Steven Monjeza (foreground) and Tiwonge Chimbalanga being led away following their sentencing to 14 years at hard labor

Following a visit from U.N. General Secretary Ban Ki-moon, Malawi President Bingu wa Mutharika announced the pardon of Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga. He has ordered the immediate release of the couple, according to Malawi-based Nyasa Times:

“I have decided that with effect from today, they are pardoned and they will be released,” President Mutharika told a battery of reporters after meeting UN boss.

…“These boys committed a crime against our culture, our religion and our laws,” said the Malawi President. “However, as the head of state I hereby pardon them and therefore ask for their immediate release with no conditions.”

He added: “I have done this on humanitarian grounds but this does not mean that I support this.”

According to the BBC, Mr. Ban hailed the move as “courageous.” “This outdated penal code should be reformed wherever it may exist,” he said.

The U.N. General Secretary is in Malawi to speak before Malawi’s Parliament as part of celebrations over the opening of the nation’s new Chinese-built Parliament Building in the recently-designated capital of Lilongwe. The BBC and the Guardian (UK) report that Mr. Ban is expected to call on Parliament to rescind its anti-sodomy laws.

Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, who identifies as a woman, were given the maximum sentence of fourteen years at hard labor last week on charges of “gross indecency” and “unnatural acts,” following a traditional engagement ceremony the couple held last December.

It is unclear when Steven and Tiwonge will actually be released, and it is more uncertain as to where they would go. Their case has gained worldwide attention and their photos are well-known throughout Malawi.

Their release is marks an important development in gay rights on the African continent. Throughout 2009 and 2010, virulent anti-gay campaigns had broken out in several African countries, with Uganda threatening to hang gay people who were HIV-positive and jail everyone else who had anything to do with them. Ugandan leaders bragged that their proposal was a demonstration of “leadership to the world” against LGBT people, but international pressure has led to multiple news reports hinting that the bill may die a quiet death. If Malawi’s conviction and imprisoning of Steven and Tiwonge was left to stand, it was feared that other nations on the continent may be encourage to initiate or revive their own anti-gay campaigns.

Comments

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Mike
May 29th, 2010 | LINK

I hope Malawi and other nations adopt a practice whereby those convicted of such nonviolent, victim-less local “crimes” may apply to emigrate instead of being imprisoned or even executed. Many nations would welcome Steven and Tiwonge without hesitation.

It seems like nations consider their citizens to be property, or cattle, and choose to torment and kill their transgressors at great expense, when voluntary exile would be more humane.

Lindoro Almaviva
May 29th, 2010 | LINK

I hope they are offered political asylum somewhere in Europe, where they can be wed and lead productive lives.

Regan DuCasse
May 29th, 2010 | LINK

Good points folks!
A country like Canada, where they can be legally married and have social services that would support them and integrate them into Canadian society seems ideal.

Better than in America (embarrassing to say) where marriage would be limited.

I’m so happy for them. And it’s a shame before all that’s good and just that two men or two women cannot love in peace.

anteros
May 29th, 2010 | LINK

i’m so happy they got outta jail! i didnt think this would happen, not after all those months of harassment and humiliation.

props to ban ki moon.

Emily K
May 29th, 2010 | LINK

i’m so glad. this is such a relief to me.

Emily K
May 29th, 2010 | LINK

..of course, it still leaves me concerned about prison conditions other prisoners must endure in Malawi…

Debbie
May 29th, 2010 | LINK

What worries me is that they will be released without protection. Their families have already rejected them, so who will keep them safe? I fear violence against them with the authorities doing nothing to prevent it. Can’t someone get them out of the country NOW?

John duffell
May 29th, 2010 | LINK

Ndikusowa pogwira…I am at a complete loss. I did not expect this, not in a million years. Of course, this doesn’t mean that Malawi’s anti-sodomy laws are about to be reformed, and we could definitely see some backlash against Mutharika’s pardon. Still, heartening news.

I’m still having difficulty accepting the truth of this. Until I see photographic evidence of their freedom, I’m not sure I’ll be able to accept that it has really happened.

It will be interesting to see the reactions by other countries. I’m less interested in those of the West; I’m much more curious how other African nations who are currently grappling with the “gay issue” will respond. Malawi and Zimbabwe, for example, are very close friends (as are their respective heads of state).

For what it’s worth, Mutharika is the current head of the African Union, which certainly lends more weight to this as a symbolic gesture.

justsearching
May 30th, 2010 | LINK

It was somewhat brave of the president to go against public opinion to release these two. However, everyone knows that he did so under international political and financial pressure. I wonder what the behind-the-scenes talks to secure the release looked like.

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