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UK Ministers Call for Human Rights Review in Malawi Following Sentencing of
Gay Couple to 14 Years in Jail
LONDON, May 20, 2010 – Three government ministers have hit out at this week’s conviction in a Malawi court – and this morning’s sentencing of 14 years in prison with hard labour – of the gay couple Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza who were arrested last December for having a traditional engagement ceremony.
The ministers described the conviction as “intolerable” – and pledged to continue to press the Malawian government to review its laws to ensure the defence of human rights for all, without discrimination on any grounds
“We are deeply dismayed by the conviction for buggery and indecent practices of Mr Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Mr Steven Monjeza,” Henry Bellingham, Foreign and Commonwealth Office Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Stephen O'Brien, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department for International Development, and Lynne Featherstone, Minister for Equality at the Home Office, said in a joint statement.
“We are also very concerned by the allegations of their mistreatment in police custody.
“Malawi has made significant progress on human rights in recent years. The government has signed up to international human rights treaties and Malawi’s constitution protects the rights of all its citizens.
“Infringement of these rights is intolerable. The conviction and sentencing to the maximum 14 years’ imprisonment of Mr Chimbalanga and Mr Monjeza, runs counter to a positive trend.
“Britain has a close and strong partnership with Malawi and it is in this spirit that we raise our concerns. The UK believes that human rights apply to everyone regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
“The UK urges the Government of Malawi to review its laws to ensure the defence of human rights for all, without discrimination on any grounds. The UK, along with our international partners, will continue to press the Government of Malawi on this issue,” the statement concluded.
In Africa, a group of Non-Governmental Organisation are jointly calling on the Malawian authorities to repeal discriminatory laws criminalising private sexual behaviour.
Undule Mwakasungura, director of the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation in South Africa told the South Africa Press Association: “This conviction and sentence raises serious concerns regarding the human rights of all individuals in Malawi ... protecting human rights is not a western issue, it is a Malawian issue.”
The magistrate, Nyakwawa Usiwa Usiwa, is reported to have told the pair in court today for sentencing: “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 South African Municipal Workers Union called today for the immediate release of the pair – and also called for members of the African Union to publicly dissociate themselves from the conviction.
“Homosexuality exists in all of our societies. It is a reality, however difficult it is for some to accept this simple fact,” a spokesperson for the union said today.
“Incarcerating innocent couples who just happen to be of the same sex serves no purpose other than to feed the cancer of discrimination.”
Back in London, Peter Tatchell of the gay rights group Outrage! described the sentence as “appalling, vindictive and brutal”, adding that it “tramples on Malawi's constitution, violates personal privacy and reverses the country's commitment to human rights”.
“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, he 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.”
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, he 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,” Mr. Tatchell pointed out. “Prison conditions are appallingly unhealthy.
“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.
“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.”
Malawi Gay Couple Sentenced to 14 Years in Jail. A judge in Malawi has sentenced a gay couple to 14 years in prison with hard labour after they were convicted of gross indecency and unnatural acts. The judge said he wanted to "protect" the public. (BBC News, May 20, 2010)