Sunday, May 30, 2010

Malawi Pardons Gay Couple During United Nations Secretary General's Visit

Malawi pardons gay couple during UN chief's visit

8:50am IST
By Mabvuto Banda

LILONGWE (Reuters) - Malawi's leader pardoned a gay couple from a 14-year prison term on Saturday after a meeting with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who applauded the move and urged the country to amend "outdated" laws on homosexuality.

Major donors to aid-dependent Malawi had condemned the jail sentence as an abuse of human rights and warned that this could affect support for Malawi's budget. The United States had called the decision "unconscionable".

"These boys committed a crime against our culture, our religion and our laws," President Bingu wa Mutharika said.

"However, as the head of state I hereby pardon them and therefore ask for their immediate release with no conditions," he said after a meeting with Ban where the U.N. leader raised the issue of the sentencing.

"I have done this on humanitarian grounds but this does not mean that I support this," wa Mutharika added.

The Malawian couple, Steven Monjeza, 26, and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, 20, were arrested after celebrating their engagement in a traditional ceremony in late December.

They were tried and found guilty earlier this month of sodomy and indecency. The trial became a test case for gay rights in the southern African country.

Evance Phiri, spokesman for the Malawi Prison Service, said the couple may have to wait until Monday to be released.

"We have to wait for official communication and therefore the couple are likely to be released on Monday," he said.


"I applaud President Mutharika for pardoning them," Ban told reporters at the State House, "and I hope legislators will also look at the laws of the country against minorities."

Addressing Malawi's National Assembly later, Ban said: "I appeal to you [legislators] to reform outdated laws that discriminate against homosexuality. They should be repealed and reformed."

"I urge all countries to show moral and political courage in combating discrimination in all its forms. Malawi should be known throughout the world for its successes in combating poverty and hunger, not for outdated laws on homosexuality."

Ban said he was upset that his visit had been overshadowed in the media by recent cases in Malawi and Uganda where "homosexuals have been persecuted and prosecuted".

The sentence was also condemned by South African President Jacob Zuma, a Zulu traditionalist, in a rare rebuke of a fellow African nation.

Homosexuality in Africa has become a contentious issue of late after a Ugandan lawmaker proposed a bill including the death penalty for some acts, police raided a gay wedding in Kenya, and the Malawian couple were arrested.

Peter Thatchell, a British gay activist who has been helping the Malawian couple in prison and organising international support for them, welcomed the pardon and said:

"I hope the government of Malawi will now show true humanitarian leadership by repealing the criminalisation of homosexuality and enacting laws to protect gay people against discrimination and hate crimes, as South Africa has done."

While homosexuality is illegal in most of Africa's 53 nations, including Malawi and Kenya, South Africa in 2006 passed legislation recognising same-sex marriage.

The White House welcomed the pardoning.

"he White House is pleased to learn of President Bingu wa Mutharika's pardon of Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza.

"These individuals were not criminals and their struggle is not unique. We must all recommit ourselves to ending the persecution and criminalization of sexual orientation and gender identity," a White House spokesman said.

(Writing by Agnieszka Flak, editing by Mark Heinrich)

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