by Mike Andrew -
SGN Staff Writer
Steven Monjeza and his Transgender partner Tiwonge Chimbalanga have been convicted of 'gross indecency' and 'unnatural acts' and given the maximum sentence by a court in Malawi.
'I sentence you to 14 years' imprisonment with hard labor each. That's the maximum under the penal code,' chief magistrate Nyakwawa Usiwa Usiwa told the couple in a courtroom in Malawi's capital, Blantyre.
"I will give you a scaring sentence so that the public will be protected from people like you, so that we are not tempted to emulate this horrendous example," the judge said.
Turning to the spectators, Usiwa Usiwa added, "I sentence these two & to a maximum sentence because I want us to stop Malawian sons and daughters from copying the same-sex marriages which are un-Malawian and not in our culture and religious beliefs. & Malawi is not ready to see its sons getting married to its sons."
The two were convicted on May 18 and sentenced May 20.
In unusually graphic language, judge Usiwa Usiwa convicted Monjeza of "having carnal knowledge of Tiwonge through the anus, which is against the order of nature."
Chimbalanga was found guilty of "permitting buggery," which the judge said was also contrary to the natural order.
Defense attorney Mauya Msuku told BBC that his clients would appeal.
At the couple's sentencing hearing, Msuku had argued that their actions had not victimized anyone.
"Unlike in a rape case, there was no complainant or victim in this case," he said. "Here are two consenting adults doing their thing in private. Nobody will be threatened or offended if they are released into society."
But chief prosecutor Dickens Mwambazi welcomed the judge's decision.
"In Malawi, we don't allow men to marry men or women to marry women," he said. "I think 90% of the crowd here agrees with the ruling."
BBC reporter Raphael Tenthani said Monjeza broke down in tears when the sentence was read, while Chimbalanga remained calm.
"I am not worried," Chimbalanga told reporters. She acknowledged supporters with smiles and high fives as she was led away.
Monjeza has been seriously ill, and there were concerns that prison authorities were not providing adequate medical care. Reporters on the scene said he looked thin and depressed.
The courtroom was packed, and hundreds of people gathered outside the building. Some shouted abuse as the couple was taken back to jail.
"You got what you deserve!" some shouted. "Fourteen years is not enough; they should get 50!"
Monjeza and Chimbalanga celebrated a traditional Malawian wedding on December 28 and were arrested the next day. They have been in prison ever since.
Chimbalanga was born biologically male, but has always identified and lived as a woman, according to her relatives. She is a recognized member of the women's group at the church where she met Monjeza.
Prior to the verdict on May 18, Monjeza and Chimbalanga issued a defiant message from prison reaffirming their love for each other.
"I love Steven so much," Chimbalanga said. "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."
"We have come a long way and even if our family relatives are not happy, I will not and never stop loving Tiwonge," said Monjeza.
In January, defense attorney Msuku appealed to the Constitutional Court to toss out the case, saying his clients had a constitutional "right to privacy, dignity, belief, conscience and self-expression."
Msuku, who has been hired by Malawi's underground Gay rights group, the Centre for the Development of People, argued that laws banning homosexuality "violate the right to marry and find a family."
The top court refused to consider the appeal, however.
Human rights activists said the sentence was a blow for human rights and minority groups and the fight against HIV/AIDS.
British Gay activist Peter Tatchell, who has been in constant contact with the couple in prison, condemned their conviction.
"With so much hatred and violence in the world, it is bizarre that any court would criminalize two people for loving each other," he said.
Tatchell also praised the couple for their bravery in the face of harsh criminal penalties.
"They declared their love in a society where many people - not all - are very intolerant and homophobic. This was a very brave thing to do," he said.
"Malawi's anti-Gay laws were not devised by Malawians," Tatchell noted.
"They were devised in London in the 19th century and imposed on the people of Malawi by British colonizers 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."
Amnesty International has declared Monjeza and Chimbalanga to be prisoners of conscience and has demanded their immediate and unconditional release.
"Being in a relationship should not be a crime. No one should be arrested and detained solely on the basis of their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity," said Michelle Kagari, deputy Africa director at Amnesty International.
"Their human rights, the rights to freedom from discrimination, of conscience, expression, and privacy have been flagrantly violated," she said. "Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga have done nothing wrong and should be released immediately."
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."
Richard Bridgen of the Southern Africa Litigation Centre said the sentencing was a "real tragedy for Malawian society."
"The deep point is that they have the right to be different & the right to live the life they choose," said Bridgen.
According to Tatchell, the couple only recently became aware of the international furor surrounding their case.
Monjeza and Chimbalanga expressed their thanks for the support they have received from fellow Malawians and from people around the world, Tatchell said.
"We are thankful for the people who have rallied behind us during this difficult time. We are grateful to the people who visit and support us, which really makes us feel to be members of a human family; otherwise we would feel condemned," said Chimbalanga.
Monjeza added, "All the support is well appreciated. We are grateful to everybody who is doing this for us. May people please continue the commendable job. & Prison life is very difficult."
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