by Mike Andrew -
SGN Staff Writer
Steven Monjeza and his Transgender partner, Tiwonge Chimbalanga, recently convicted and sentenced to 14 years' hard labor under Malawi's anti-Gay laws, were pardoned by President Bingu wa Mutharika on May 30.
They were released from custody the same day.
Mutharika announced his decision shortly after meeting with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
"The secretary general told the president rather strongly that the current controversy was having a negative effect on Malawi's reputation and obscuring the progress it had made in other spheres," said a member of the United Nations delegation speaking on condition of anonymity to the Associated Press.
Ban also addressed Malawi's parliament, telling the legislators that their president had made a "courageous decision" to grant the pardon.
"It is unfortunate that laws that criminalize people on the basis of their sexual orientation should still exist in some countries," Ban said. "This outdated penal code should be reformed wherever it may exist."
Legislators sat in stony silence while foreign diplomats in the gallery above cheered and applauded.
Even as he was pardoning the couple, Mutharika said that he would uphold his country's anti-Gay laws.
"In all aspects of reasoning, in all aspects of human understanding, these two Gay boys were wrong - totally wrong," he said.
"However, now that they have been sentenced, I as the president of this country have the powers to pronounce on them and therefore, I have decided that with effect from today, they are pardoned and they will be released."
Minister of Gender and Children Patricia Kaliati insisted that the president had not bowed to international pressure in releasing Monjeza and Chimbalanga, and the country would not reconsider its anti-Gay law.
"We have our own rules and laws which we are following, and our own constitution. Our constitution is not the same as your constitution," she told BBC reporters.
Kaliati added that the couple might face future charges if they continued to live together.
"It doesn't mean that now they are free people, they can keep doing whatever you keep doing," she said.
Couple reappears after four days
After four days during which even supporters could not verify their whereabouts, Monjeza and Chimbalanga reappeared for a brief press conference in the Malawian city of Lilongwe.
The couple expressed gratitude for their release.
"The president has demonstrated that he is a caring father, a considerate and tolerant president. We wish him good health in his everyday endeavors as he continues leading the country to respecting human rights and to economic prosperity," they said in a statement.
Calling their imprisonment "the most stressful period in our lives," the couple also asked the media and 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.
Monjeza and Chimbalanga were being held in separate prisons at the time of their pardon, and on their release were sent to their own villages.
Chimbalanga told AFP news service in a phone interview that he was staying in Lilongwe to "have a breather," while his partner would return to his village.
"I've been under so much emotional stress that I need to find somewhere to rest," she told reporters. "I still want to marry Steven. But I don't know what he is thinking any more. We've been through so much."
"I think it is going to be hard to stay in Malawi," she added. "I am afraid of what people might do to us. We probably need to seek asylum in some other country. Is there a place for us? I don't know."
"Don't come to our village"
As if to validate Chimbalanga's fears, Monjeza's family members told reporters who contacted them that she would not be welcome in their village.
Village resident Kelvin Kaumira said the community was "fuming" over the couple's marriage.
"People here are furious," he said. "There are so many beautiful women in this village looking for a hand in marriage."
Monjeza's aunt Zione Monjeza said, "Nobody wants to see Tiwonge again in this village. If he dares to come here, he must do so with police for his protection."
Monjeza's uncle, Khuliwa Dennis Monjeza, called his nephew "a notorious person. He is unrepentant. He has been drinking since he was released on Saturday night."
"We are all happy he has been released," his uncle added. "But we haven't sat down with Steve to discuss the saga and determine whether he has learnt a lesson. Prison in Malawi is not a good place to be."
"We want to warn his partner Tiwonge that he should never set his foot in this village ... otherwise we shall deal with him," the uncle warned. "Our name, history and culture cannot be spoiled with one child known as Steve."
Tiwonge Chimbalanga was born biologically male, but has always identified and lived as a woman. The male pronouns used to refer to her are those chosen by the speakers.
When the Guardian newspaper approached Monjeza for an interview, he replied, "I can't just talk to you. I am selling my story. Give me [460 British pounds]," he said.
He then dropped his price to the equivalent of 276 pounds, adding, "I need money. Good money. I have just come out of prison. I need to survive."
Gift Trapence, director of the underground LGBT rights organization Center for the Development of People (CEDEP), said the group was trying to find jobs for Chimbalanga and Monjeza. CEDEP had provided attorneys for the couple.
"Stop talking about it"
Mutharika said on June 3 that he hoped Malawi would just stop talking about the couple's "satanic" wedding.
"The story ends there," Mutharika told reporters.
"I don't want to hear anyone commenting on them. Nobody is authorized to comment on the Gays. You will spoil things."
While many supporters attended the couple's trial, the public mood in Malawi is reported to be in favor of the heavy sentence, and against the pardon.
Mutharika said the couple's wedding was "satanic because they committed a crime against our culture, against our religion and against our laws," but added that he pardoned them because "to err is human and to forgive is divine."
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