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Posts for June, 2010

More Details on the Malawi Couple’s TV Interview

Jim Burroway

June 4th, 2010

Yesterday, I posted a video from TV Malawi showing Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza speaking to a reporter. That video, which had been posted by the government-owned broadcaster has since been removed by Malawi TV. But not before an American expatriate living in Malawi emailed me to explain what was being said:

I speak Chichewa at an intermediate level, and while I had trouble picking up a lot of the dialogue in that video, I got the general gist. The whole thing looks like it was set up as a public humiliation for the two. They were made to recant their story and to apologize to all Malawians.

It starts with the presenter asking Tiwo why she, “as a man,” was taken as a wife to another man. The presenter asks why Tiwo chose to do such a thing. Tiwo says that AIDS is too rampant among Malawian women, so the presenter asks, to confirm, whether Tiwo has entered a same-sex relationship to escape AIDS, which Tiwo confirms.

Tiwo says Steven is the one who initiated the relationship (they met at church), and calls Steven her “da,” i.e. “darling.” The presenter clearly finds this amusing as he asks Steven to come over and stand next to his darling.

I’m having trouble following the next exchange, about the beginning of their relationship, but Steven does say that he had a wife prior to his engagement with Tiwo. The presenter asks if this was a “real” wife (mkazi weni-weni), to which Steven says yes. The presenter says “what about this one here?” and Steven says that his relationship with “this one” (Tiwo) must end. The presenter then asks Steven if his multiple relationships make him a polygamist; Steven says no, he’s ending his relationship with Tiwo.

Now, the presenter says, “What will happen with your real wife?” Steven says he’ll go to her and beg forgiveness.

Steven says he did the whole thing out of drunkenness, he was not of sound mind, and that he was tricked by “akunja” – foreigners – into marrying Tiwo, who he was told was a woman. He says that “today,” he will end the whole thing, and his message to all Malawians is that what he has done is a bad thing, an evil thing. He said he just followed what he was told to do. (the “foreigners made them do it” theory was widely circulated in the Malawi media).

The presenter asks Steven if he was after fame, or if he just wanted to mess around with the people of Malawi? He asks why Steven is ‘kukotakota’ (“flip-flopping,” in American parlance), one day saying he loves Tiwo, the next saying he did it out of drunkenness. Finally Steven “admits” that he just wanted to be famous, prompting the presenter to turn to the camera and say, “he admits it himself – he only did these things because he wanted to be famous.”

Now the presenter asks Tiwo what she thinks, and Tiwo says that they were just confused, and that it’s fine, no problem, they can end their relationship. He repeatedly asks Tiwo if she’s a man or a woman, prompting laughter from behind the camera. Tiwo says, “okay, I’m a man.” Under further questioning, Tiwo starts saying that she always identified as a girl since birth, but the presenter says, “look, a man can work in the kitchen, that’s called a ‘chef,’ that doesn’t make him a woman. Do you have the power to give birth?’ ” Tiwo says, no, she cannot give birth, and starts to try and explain further – but finally just says, “fine, I’m a man.”

The video is unfortunately cut off just as the presenter (I won’t say “reporter” – it’s widely known, anyhow, that TVM is nothing but a mouthpiece for government) asks Tiwo if she knows that she has done a wicked thing.

The reader requests anonymity, fearing swift deportation if his identity is revealed. He also suggests independent verification of his accounts, but with the video now removed, that won’t be possible.

Two things of note. First, it’s apparent that Steven and Tiwonge both are acutely aware of the dangers they still face for being re-arrested, particularly when Steven says that their relationship is “over” and Tiwonge acquiesces. Of course, saying anything else would subject them to new charges, trial and re-imprisonment. Perhaps this is intended to counter a possibly self-incriminating statement by Steven to the Malawi Voice shortly after their release. “Prison love cemented our love and whatever happened then remains the same now, ” Steven said. “I don’t regret falling in love with Chimbalanga. I love him and I will continue doing that.” As our Malawi reader suggests, this does appear to be set up to publicly humiliate the two and force them to recant.

The second thing to note is that if this reader got the conversation correctly, it appears extremely probable that Tiwonge is, in fact, transgender. In this exchange, the interviewer challenges her identity by pointing out that gender roles are immaterial, a point that she appears to reject but recognizes that any attempt to explain further will only result in further ridicule. As I discussed earlier, this element of her identification is key. When she says, “Okay, I’m a man,” or “Fine, I’m a man,” she’s clearly decided that this interview was going nowhere, so she just ends that part of it and hopes the subject will change.

It should be noted however that Tiwonge (and Steven) may not be aware of transgender as a concept, or if she is, it’s not something she’s all that concerned about right now. Steven still refers to Tiwonge using masculine pronouns. I doubt he would do that if she objected, but the fact is, staying out of prison and trying to figure out how to make a living are clearly far more important to them right now. Sorting out the proper etiquette of labels is undoubtedly far, far more important to us than it is to them. Steven and Tiwonge have far more pressing issues to worry about.

Pardoned Malawi Couple Appear on TV

Jim Burroway

June 3rd, 2010

In the following video taken from TV Malawi and posted on YouTube, you will first see Tiwonge Chimbalanga talking to a reporter. After about a minute, Tiwonge is joined by Steven Monjeza. They are speaking in Chichewa, so if anyone can translate what’s being said that would be extremely helpful.

YouTube Preview Image

Steven and Tiwonge appeared at a brief news conference in which they thanked President Bingu wa Mutharika for pardoning them last week after they were convicted and sentenced to fourteen years at hard labor for “gross indecency and unnatural acts” following a traditional engagement ceremony last December. The news conference took place yesterday in the administrative capital of Lilongwe. AFP reports:

A Malawian gay couple who received a presidential pardon on a 14-year sentence for sodomy on Thursday called President Bingu wa Mutharika a “caring father” and a “tolerant president.”

“The president has demonstrated that he is a caring father, a considerate and tolerant president. We wish him good health in his everyday endeavours as he continues leading the country to respecting human rights and to economic prosperity,” the couple said in a statement.

… The couple asked the media and the general public to respect their privacy. “So much has been said and written about us, both positive and negative. We think this is the time for us to be given an opportunity to enjoy our freedom,” they said. They called their ordeal “the most stressful period in our lives.”

Chimbalanga told AFP in a phone interview that he was in Lilongwe to “have a breather”, while his partner had returned to his village.

The Malawi Voice had earlier quoted  Steven Monjeza as defiant, despite having been rejected by relatives following the couple’s release:

Prison love cemented our love and whatever happened then remains the same now. I don’t regret falling in love with Chimbalanga. I love him and I will continue doing that,” he said.

Also yesterday, President Mutharika called on reporters and everyone else to stop talking about the “satanic” gays. The story ends there,” he said. “I don’t want to hear anyone commenting on them. Nobody is authorized to comment on the gays. You will spoil things.”

Mutharika also acknowledged to the Malawi Voice that while there was tremendous pressure from foreign donor nations to release Steven and Tiwonge:

“Let me admit that there was pressure from the international community, who threatened to withdraw aid, so we have Zimbabwe to borrow a leaf from. Malawi needs their monies more than her morals to survive.

But despite that recognition, he painted his pardon as a humanitarian act:

“I’ve brought them back for the society to correct them and re-teach them our moral, if God, who we attach all these morals forgive, who are we to condemn them,” said Mutharika.

…“However on humanity, I believe these people have suffered enough emotional pain and the four walls of a jail will only inflict physical pain which is much laser than the emotional. So with the constitution powers vested in me as a president of the republic of Malawi, I therefore pardon them and order for their immediate release.” Said Mutharika.

Malawi President Wants Everyone to Just Shut Up About Those “Satanic” Gays

Jim Burroway

June 2nd, 2010

Malawi President Bingu wa Mutharika, who pardoned Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza after they were sentenced to fourteen years at hard labor for gross indecency and unnatural acts,” has made it clear that he and everyone else should stop talking about those “satanic” gays:

“The story ends there… I don’t want to hear anyone commenting on them. Nobody is authorised to comment on the gays. You will spoil things,” Mutharika told reporters on arrival from the France-Africa summit.

He said the gay couple’s wedding was “satanic because they committed a crime against our culture, against our religion and against our laws.”

“I am looking at donors now… what will they say about the pardon?” Mutharika said.

…”Is it possible to stop aid to Malawi because of two people who are insane?” he asked.

Mutharika freed the couple following a meeting with UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon on Saturday. Malawi had endured months of intense international criticism of couple’s prosecution. Foreign donors make up over half of Malawi’s development budget.

But that just telling you what I hear. After all, I’m authorized to comment on the gays…

Malawi LGBT Advocates Plan More Gay Weddings

Jim Burroway

June 2nd, 2010

Malawi’s fledgling LGBT advocacy movement is happy that President Bingu wa Mutharika pardoned Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Seven Mojeza last week, after they were convicted and sentenced to fourteen years at hard labor for “gross indecency and unnatural acts” following a traditional engagement ceremony last December. While the couple have been freed, government officials warn that they are subject to re-arrest if they are caught together. Representatives from the Malawi Gay Rights Movement plan on testing the government’s willingness to endure renewed international condemnation:

The Malawi Gay Rights Movement (Magrim) has hailed President Bingu wa Mutharika for pardoning convicted gays, Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza, but says it will organise two gay weddings in the country this year to ‘see if the President is committed to promoting human rights’.

Magrim spokesperson, Wongani James Phiri, said Mutharika has show a good example to other African leaders, but added that what was remaining was to see whether he was committed to the promotion of human rights.

“Malawi has many gays; but these people are suppressed. We plan to hold two weddings this year to see if these people’s (gays and lesbians) rights will be respected. We are all Malawians,” said Phiri.

Malawi Couple Released from Prison, Warned Against “Recommitting the Offense”

Jim Burroway

May 30th, 2010

Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, whose 14-year jail terms for “gross indecency and unnatural acts” were overturned by a pardon from Malawi President Bingu wa Mutharika, have been released from prison and were sent separately to their respective homes, the BBC reports. But a government minister warned that they could be re-arrested if they continued their relationship.

Patricia Kaliati, Malawi’s Minister of Gender and Children, said Monjeza and Chimbalanga’s release did not mean they could continue their relationship. “It doesn’t mean that now they are free people, they can keep doing whatever you keep doing,” she said.

Ms Kaliati said they could be rearrested if they “continue doing that”.

The couple’s lawyer, Mauya Msuks confirmed the threat:

“The pardon only applies to the offence under which they were convicted. If, for example, they go back and the state is of the view that they have recommited the offence, the pardon will not apply,” said Mauya Msuku.

President Mutharika pardoned the couple following a meeting with U.N. General Secretary Ban Ki-moon, who was in Malawi to speak before Parliament members in their brand new Chinese-built Parliament building. During his address to Parliament, Ban commended Mutharika’s actions as “courageous” and called on Parliament to rescind the country’s anti-homosexuality laws:

“It is unfortunate that laws that criminalize people on the basis of their sexual orientation exist in some countries. They should be reformed,” he underlined.

He expressed the hope that Parliament “will take appropriate steps to update laws discriminating based on sexual orientation in line with international standards.”

The couple’s release was hailed by international human rights advocates and by the goverments of the United States and Britain. But reaction inside Malawi was decidedly more mixed. A Nyasa Times editorial today said that in the end, Steven and Tiwonge still be judged harshly. Citing President Mutharika’s statement that “I have done this on humanitarian grounds but this does not mean that I support this,” the editors write:

We at the Nyasa Times are happy because his statement resonates very well with respected thinker Friedrich Nietzsche who once observed that “If there is something to pardon in everything, there is also something to condemn.” In essence what the president has said is that he has forgiven the gay couple but he will not forget their legal wrongs.

…With the moneyed people in this globe we live in, they have their way; and we have our way, but somehow somewhere money talks. Sadly, as for the right way, the correct way and the only way, it does not exist. Pressure or not under pressure, the President has done the right thing to pardon the gay couple.

After all, if Malawi is a God-fearing nation, then it subscribes to the teachings of the Bible which contends that the two will have to give their account to their Creator on why they behaved they way they have on the Day of Reckoning. It is not for us to Judge.

“It is not for us to judge” was, in a nutshell, Pontius Pilate’s lame excuse. And so it has been true ever since: whenever you hear someone say “it is not for us to judge,” you can count on their already having judged and condemned, and are now just trying to wash their hands of it.

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.

The Malawi Couple: Gay or Transgender? Or Something Else?

This commentary is the opinion of the author and may not necessarily reflect those of other authors at Box Turtle Bulletin.

Jim Burroway

May 22nd, 2010

Steven Monjeza (L) and Tiwonge Chimbalanga (R). Tiwonge is wearing a traditional woman's headdress in this photo.

Transgender advocate Autumn Sandeen has published a post on Pam’s House Blend calling attention to something that we noticed on January 5th — that Tiwonge Chimbalanga, who was convicted and sentenced with Steven Monjeza to 14 years at hard labor under Malawi’s harsh anti-homosexuality law, actually identifies as a woman. Since learning of this, we’ve been extremely careful at BTB not to use the term “gay” to describe Tiwonge, and we’ve tried to avoid the use of male pronouns. (Actually, we’ve tried to avoid the use of pronouns altogether when talking about Tiwonge, as I’ll explain in a moment.) Unfortunately, other blogs and media outlets haven’t been so careful. Autumn notes:

[L]et’s be honest with ourselves — I believe we can safely say that from past coverage by the LGBT press and LGBT blogosphere that this story would not have gained as much traction in LGBT media if this were considered a transgender or intersex story.

And, that’s sad. Transphobia and homophobia both arise from the same root — that root has to do a lot with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer people not conforming with societal sex and gender norms…Especially societal sex and gender norms for those considered to be male. And, that root has a lot to do with misogyny.

But, the erasing of the woman in this story’s intersex, transgender, and/or transsexual history from this story says a lot about the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community and its media.

I agree wholeheartedly with Autumn’s point that this story does say a lot about the LGBT community and media. But I also think that Autumn’s position, as admirable and fully correct as it is from a Western point of view, says more about the construction of sexuality and gender in Western society than it does about how people in other cultures actually see themselves.

As I said, we have avoided describing Tiwonge and Steven as a “gay” couple, but we’ve also avoided describing Tiwonge as intersex, transgender or transsexual, and for good reason. None of these terms may describe Tiwonge very well because they speak to a Western, Euro-centric understanding of sexuality and gender, and not an African one.

And it’s critical that we wrap our brains around this because otherwise we will fail to fully honor Tiwonge. We know that Tiwonge identifies as a woman. We also know that Tiwonge wears women’s clothing.  We also know that Malawi court officials assigned Tiwonge the “woman’s job” of mopping up her own vomit when she fell ill in court, although that was clearly an act of humiliation by assigning her a “woman’s” duty rather than a respectful recognition of her self-identity (which furthers Autumn’s point about misogyny.)

(And for the time being, I’ll use the female pronoun to describe Tiwonge although I have no idea if that’s the pronoun that Tiwonge prefers. Tiwonge may actually prefer male pronouns, for reasons I’ll get into in a moment.)

By Western standards, all of this evidence would be sufficient to remove Tiwonge from the “gay” box and placed her neatly and tidily in the “transgender” box, and the rest of the story would (or at least, should) proceed accordingly. And certainly if we must place Tiwonge in such a box, there is a much stronger case for using the transgender box than the gay one. But doing so may not be the best way to honor Tiwonge’s self-identity.

Research indicates that in contemporary western cultures where gender roles between men and women are more equalized, gender differences often are more pronounced when identified with a set of traits. Standardized measures for aggressiveness and openness to ideas correlate to males, while standardized measures for agreeableness, warmth and openness to feelings correlate more strongly to females. This finding, which has been replicated elsewhere, baffled researchers who expected the equalization of gender roles to result in a similar equalization of gender traits. And they were further surprised that gender traits were actually more equalized in traditional societies where gender role differences were much stronger.

It turns out that in many traditional cultures, it may be more acceptable for women to take on what westerners perceive as “masculine” traits, and for men to take on what westerners would label more “feminine” traits. Which means that many of the external peripheral markers that we use to understand the contours of our masculinity or femininity become less important in many traditional cultures. But in these non-western cultures, gender roles — what men and women do as opposed to who they are — are considered much more important in defining what is a man and what is a woman. Against that realty, our understanding of gay/straight/transgender/whatever has only a passing relevance.

And this research appears to confirm a trend that I have noticed in my own reading of LGBT narratives from Africa. I’ve noticed that some men in particular appear to shift quite easily back and forth between masculine and feminine gender identities, and that these shifts appear to mark an identification of gender roles, whether that role may be the role someone takes in an intimate setting, or a broader role in a community or society. I’ve seen narratives where a man may take a woman’s name, and then he later shifts back to his original male name with little apparent consternation or confusion to those around him. And where I’ve seen this happen, it has appeared to me to be a reflection of gender role more so than gender identity. These appear to be men who also sometimes see themselves as women, but with little apparent intention of seeing themselves as transgender. In other words, the identification appears to describe a role by taking on the cultural trappings of that role, but not a definitive declaration of a state of being as is generally the case among transgender people in the West. (Although, of course, it must be said that there really are transgender people in Africa, in precisely the same sense in which there are transgender people elsewhere in the world.)

So if I may, I would like to take three seconds to pat myself on the back for having avoided the term “gay” to describe Tiwonge. I wish others had been similarly careful. But I suppose I will now have to expose myself for a share of bricks being thrown my way for refusing to describe Tiwonge as transgender. I’m sorry, but I’m not fully convinced that “transgender” is an accurate description either, at least not until I hear it coming from Tiwonge himself or herself. I readily concede that if we must apply a Western term, transgender appears to be a much more accurate descriptor than gay. But in the interest of fuller accuracy, I will stick to the only description that Tiwonge provides, and the one I find to be the most accurate: Tiwonge identifies as a woman. And she does so according to her understanding of what it means to be a woman in the context of her culture. Until we hear otherwise from Tiwonge directly, there cannot be a more accurate description than that.

Malawi “People Like You” Given 14 Year Sentence

Jim Burroway

May 20th, 2010

Steven Monjeza (L) and Tiwonge Chimbalanga (R)

Declaring that he wanted to protect the public “from people like you,” Judge Nyakwawa Usiwa-Usiwa of Blantyre Magistrates Court sentenced Steven Monjeza, 26, and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, 20, to 14 years in prison with hard labor, the maximum sentence under Malawi law, after having found them found guilty of gross indecency and unnatural acts:

“I sentence you to 14 years imprisonment with hard labour each. That’s the maximum under the penal code,” magistrate Nyakwawa Usiwa Usiwa told the two men in a courtroom in the capital Blantyre.

“I will give you a scaring sentence so that the public be protected from people like you so that we are not tempted to emulate this horrendous example,” the judge added.

“Malawi is not ready to see its sons getting married to its sons.”

The BBC reports that Monjeza broke down in tears when he heard the sentence, while Chimbalanga remained calm.

As they were escorted away under heavy police guard, hundreds of onlookers outside the court shouted abuse at them,. One woman reportedly yelled, “Malawi should never allow homosexuality at any cost.”

The couple’s lawyer said that they would appeal the verdict to High Court.

Human rights groups call the ruling a significant blow:

Undule Mwakasungura, director of the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation, said the sentence would drive gays into hiding. “Malawi needs to sit down and tackle the issue of gays,” he said. “We have many of them who need to publicly access information and HIV and AIDS medical care. It’s a big let-down.”

The U.S. State Department has condemned the conviction:

The United States is deeply disappointed in [the] conviction of same-sex couple Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza in Malawi,” said assistant secretary Phillip J. Crowley at a press briefing Wednesday. “We view the criminalization of sexual orientation and gender identity as a step backward in the protection of human rights in Malawi. The government of Malawi must respect the human rights of all of its citizens. The United States views the decriminalization of sexual orientation and gender identity as integral to the protection of human rights in Malawi and elsewhere in the world.”

Britain has also denounced the move:

“We are deeply dismayed by the conviction for buggery and indecent practices of Mr. Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Mr. Steven Monjeza,” said a joint statement issued by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). “We are also very concerned by the allegations of their mistreatment in police custody,” added FCO Minister Henry Bellingham, International Development Minister Stephen O’Brien and Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone.

Three British MP’s have called for a Human Rights review in Malawi. In a press release, UK LGBT Advocate Peter Tatchell warns that a fourteen year sentence under Malawi’s harsh prison system could effectively mean the death penalty for Steven and Tiwonge:

“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.”

Malawi Government Pleased With Homosexuality Conviction

Jim Burroway

May 19th, 2010

The Malawian Minister of Information, Leckford Mwanza Thotho reacts to yesterday’s conviction of Steven Monjeza, 26, and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, 20, for gross indecency and “unnatural acts.” Thus saith Thotho:

“What we are saying is that the ruling or the court proceeding as of today, reflects our tradition in Malawi. It just shows that the gay issue is against our culture in Malawi,” he said.

…“What I’m trying to say is if polygamy is not allowed in America and we have not forced you to do that for the sake of human rights…so, if other countries allowed polygamy, and we say you have to allow polygamy for the sake of human rights, we are not doing fair to your situation in America. So, it’s the same thing with our country. Homosexuality is a taboo in Malawi,” Thotho said.

Malawi Couple Found Guilty of Homosexuality

Jim Burroway

May 18th, 2010

Steven Monjeza (left) and Tiwonge Chimbalanga (right)

Steven Monjeza, 26, and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, 20, were found guilty today of gross indecency and “unnatural acts” in a verdict delivered at Blantyre Magistrate’s Court. Said Magistrate Nyakwawa Usiwa Usiwa, “The state has proven beyond reasonable doubt that these gentlemen had sex despite them being male, which is against the law of Malawi.” The couple will be sentenced on Thursday, May 20. They face up to fourteen years imprisonment with hard labor. Lawyers hope to reverse the decision at High Court.

The verdict has earned condemnation from around the world:

“We have a reached a point in Malawi where we need to decide whether we regard minority groups as equal to others in terms of their human rights,” said Gift Trapence, executive director of the human rights group Centre for the Development of People (CEDEP), who was in the courtroom Tuesday.

“Malawi is using laws brought in by the British,” he said. “They need to be updated.”

UK LGBT Advoate Peter Tatchell, who has been in close contact with Steven and Tiwonge, also denounced the verdict via press release:

“The law under which they were convicted is a discriminatory law that only applies to same-sex relations. It is unconstitutional. Article 20 of Malawi’s constitution guarantees equality and non-discrimination. The law in Malawi is not supposed to discriminate,” added Mr Tatchell.

“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 now appeal against the verdict and against any sentence that is handed down. Steven and Tiwonge’s best hope is that a higher court will overturn this unjust, cruel verdict.”

Tatchell noted that the Magistrate appeared biased throughout the trial. The Magistrate had denied bail to the couple, which is an extreme rarity for a non-violent crime. The Magistrate also permitted witnesses from the gallery and court personnel to abuse the couple during official court proceedings.

Tatchell also reports that you can write to Steven and Tiwonge to offer them your support. You can address your letters and post cards to  Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, Prisoners, Chichiri Prison, P.O.Box 30117, Blantyre 3, Malawi.

Update: Despite international condemnation, the Malawian government is quite pleased with the conviction.

Judgment Day for Steven and Tiwonge

Jim Burroway

May 18th, 2010

Steven Monjeza (left) and Tiwonge Chimbalanga (right)

A Malawi Court will render its verdict today in the case involving Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza, who were charged with buggery and gross indecency following a traditional engagement ceremony last December. The two will appear today before a Magistrate Nyakwawa Usiwa Usiwa at Blantyre Magistrates Court, where they face up to fourteen years at hard labor. The Guardian (UK) reports that the Tiwonge and Steven have remained loyal to each other despite the hardships they’ve already faced:

Peter Tatchell, the veteran British gay rights campaigner, has maintained contact with the pair at the maximum security Chichiri prison in Blantyre as they prepare to stand trial next week.

Tatchell told the Guardian he received a defiant message from Chimbalanga that 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.”

Tatchell, of the rights group Outrage!, also quoted Monjeza – who is described as thin and weak with jaundiced eyes – as saying: “We have come a long way and even if our family relatives are not happy, I will never stop loving Tiwonge.”

The Guardian also reports that Tiwonge and Steven have been abandoned by their relatives:

Angry residents and relatives from Machinjiri township, on the outskirts of Blantyre, say they will not allow them to return home if they are set free.

“They have given this township a bad name,” said Maikolo Phiri, a local vendor.

Zione Monjeza, an aunt of Monjeza, said: “We as a family have been terribly embarrassed to be associated with this gay thing. It’s a curse and a big shame. We will chase them away if they are freed.”

Nchiteni Monjeza, Monjeza’s uncle, said: “I won’t drop a tear if they are jailed – they deserve it.”

US Reps, Malawi Law Society Call For Prisoners’ Release

Jim Burroway

May 13th, 2010

Sometimes news originating closer to home comes to us from half a world away, and in this case this is an especially good sign. It means that the main newspapers in Malawi are paying close attention to possible repercussions from abroad which stem from the ongoing prosecution of Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza, who have been held in deplorable conditions in a prison since late December on charges of buggery and “gross indecency” following a traditional engagement ceremony.

BNL Times and Nyasa Times are both reporting that a resolution is making its way through the US House Foreign Affairs Committee calling on the Malawi government to immediately release Chimbalanga and Monjeza “law and on humanitarian grounds.” Monjeza has reportedly been seriously ill and has been denied decent food and medical treatment.

The resolution further calls on the Malawi government to “urgently address the pervasive violation of human rights in Malawi and the criminalization of conduct by consenting adults” and directs Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to monitor human rights abuses based on sexual orientation in Malawi.

The resolution, introduced on May 6, was sponsored by Rep. Mark Kirk (R-IL) and cosponsored by Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and Edward Markey (D-MA). The Nyasa Times adds that “The representatives aim to pass the resolution next week in order to help the couple before their final verdict slated on May 18 at the Blantyre magistrate court.” The couple face a maximum fourteen years imprisonment under harsh conditions.

In related news, the Nyasa Times also reports that the Malawi Law Society has also called for the couple’s immediate release, saying the society does not pose a danger to them and vice versa. Stephen and Tiwonge, who identifies as a woman, were denied bail ostensibly  “for their own safety.”

Jailed Gay Malawian Reportedly Seriously Ill

Jim Burroway

April 13th, 2010

Stephen Monjeza, the Malawi man who has been imprisoned since late December for holding an engagement party with Tiwonge Chimbalanga who identifies as a woman, is critically ill and has been “vomiting, coughing and suffering from pain and pressure in his chest for the last eleven days,” according to UK LGBT advocate Peter Tatchell. Monjeza is being held in what has been described as deplorable conditions at Chichiri Prison in Blantyre, where sources tell Tatchell that he has been deprived of proper food, sanitation or medical care:

He looks very ill and has lost weight,” Tatchell quotes a prison source. He says that people who have seen him fear his health and that he needs urgent hospital care. “The prison authorities have failed to give Steven proper treatment, or even sufficient pain killers. His pain-killers ran out on 10 April,” said Tatchell.

He added: “My informant says Mr Monjeza urgently needs to go to hospital for a full medical examination and treatment. His health is likely to deteriorate further unless he gets swift medical care.”

Stephen and Tiwonge have been adopted by Amnesty International as “prisoners of conscience.” According to reports, their trial for buggery and “gross indecency” is still ongoing. A final sentencing is expected on May 18. The couple face up to fourteen years’ imprisonment if convicted.

Malawi Sentencing Delayed, Someone Remembered the Defense Has a Right to Call Witnesses

Jim Burroway

March 22nd, 2010

Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza, the couple in Malawi who were charged with “gross indecency” following a traditional engagement ceremony and were expected to be sentenced today, has had the conclusion of their trial delayed until at least April 8. According to news sources, Chief Resident Magistrate Nyakwawa Usiwa-Usiwa will rule on “whether Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga has a case to answer or not.” I take that to mean a judgment of guilty or not guilty, but I’m not familiar with Malawi court proceedings and can’t say for sure. If anyone has an explanation, please give us a clue in the comments.

Update: Here’s a clue:

The court has established a prima facie case against the accused persons,” the judge told the courtroom, adding that the couple could call their witnesses from April 3. “The accused will want to defend themselves and call their own witnesses,” the couple’s lawyer Oswald Ntuwakale told AFP.

Oh, yeah. They get to call witnesses for their defense before they are declared guilty and sentenced. Glad someone remembered that.

Update: Here’s what’s really happening.Earlier reports that said that today’s court session was to be the sentencing were wrong. While some local reporters were eager to rush to judgement, the judge was not. The prosecution presented their case, and the judge has now ruled that there is enough evidence to prevent the judge from dismissing the case for lack of evidence. So now it is the defense’s turn. The trial continues.

State Department Issues Annual Human Rights Report, Highlights Uganda

Jim Burroway

March 12th, 2010

The State Department has issued its annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2009, which shows that LGBT people continue to experience state-sanctioned or permitted violence and discrimination. For example, the report notes the following cases of human rights violations against LGBT people in Uganda:

For example, on April 5, police in Mbale District arrested SMUG activists Fred Wasukira and Brian Mpadde. On April 17, a court in Mbale charged Wasukira and Mpadde with homosexual conduct and remanded the suspects to Maluke prison. On May 20, the court released Wasukira on police bail; Mpadde was released on June 16. The case was ongoing at year’s end.

On June 19, police in Kitgum interrogated former police coach Charles Ayeikoh over allegations that he was involved in homosexual acts. An investigation was ongoing at year’s end.

In July the administration of Mbalala Senior Secondary School in Mukono District dismissed student John Paul Mulumba after he acknowledged that he was a SMUG member.

During the year the UHRC stopped investigating the July 2008 case in which SMUG activist Usaam Mukwaya alleged that police tortured and humiliated him during an illegal detention; Mukwaya reportedly decided not to pursue the case.

During the year police dismissed for lack of evidence a September 2008 case against SMUG members George Oundo and Brenda Kiiza, who were charged with indecent practices.

LGBT persons were also subject to societal harassment and discrimination.

For example, on March 17, the Uganda Joint Christian Council and the Family Life Network launched a campaign to curb homosexual conduct in higher institutions. SMUG accused the organizers of using religion to attack the LGBT community in the country.

The report also mentions arrests, executions, and other violence and abuses in Malawi, Senegal, Nigeria, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Jamaica, and elsewhere around the world.

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