Friday, 5 February 2010

Malawi police hunt for gay rights activists, one arrested


Source: Afrique en ligne - 3 Feb
Police in Malawi are hunting for a group of gay rights activists who are secretly mobilizing the public to warm up to homosexuals following the high profile arrest of Malawi's first openly gay couple in the commercial capital, Blantyre, over Christmas, PANA reported.

This followed the arrest at the weekend of a 21-year-old man who was caught pasting pro-gay rights posters on the streets of Blantyre.

"We arrested Peter Sawali last Saturday after we were tipped that there are people pasting posters promoting the so-called rights of gays and lesbians on the streets of Blantyre," police spokesman Dave Chingwalu told PANA in an interview Tuesday.

Chingwalu said Sawali, who is still in police custody pending further investigations, was found with stacks of expertly and expensively printed posters displaying such messages as: "GAY RIGHTS ARE HUMAN RIGHTS!".

The police spokesman said police believed Sawali was working with other people.

"We are still investigating because we believe there is a chain of people who were working with Mr. Sawali," said Chingwalu.

He said police believed Sawali, whose source of livelihood authorities were yet to be established, was being sponsored by "an individual or group of individuals " with deep pockets.

"We cannot rule out international sponsors because of the quality and the quantity of the posters," he said, adding "they might even have been produced outside the country."

Recently, government lambasted local NGOs who were allegedly offered upwards of US$ 500,000 by international gay rights advocates to promote gay rights in Malawi.

No local NGO openly accepted the offer, although some of them have openly condemned Malawi's homophobic laws.

Chingwalu, the police spokesman, said Sawali would be charged with conduct likely to cause breach of peace, a misdemeanour that can see the accused - if convicted - fined up to 5,000 Malawi kwacha (about US$ 36) or sent to jail for up to three months.

Meanwhile, following the arrest of Steven Monjeza, 26 and his partner, 20-year-old Tiwonge Chimbalanga, there has been increased debate on homosexuality in the largely conservative southern African country, the majority of whose population frowns upon gays and lesbians.

The Centre for the Development of People (CEDEP) - a NGO that advocates for rights of minority groups such as prostitutes and gays and lesbians - has asked authorities to relax its homophobic laws and incorporate homosexuals in the country's fight against HIV/AIDS.

CEDEP said studies show that because of homophobic legislations, gays and lesbians are driven underground, making them vulnerable to the pandemic.

The group said there are a lot of homosexual activities in Malawi, especially in prisons.

An underground group, calling itself Broad Coalition, has also come up with a he ightened pro-gay rights campaign by anonymously spreading leaflets, posters and pictures promoting gay rights.

International rights campaigners, including Amnesty International and Outrage! - a UK-based pro-gay rights organisation, alongside some Scottish Members of Parliament, have also joined the fray, calling for the release of Monjeza and Chimbalanga and the relaxation of Malawi's homophobic laws.

The Malawi government has since brushed aside the growing international criticism following the arrest of the couple on 27 December after they held an open traditional engagement ceremony a day earlier in readiness for their scheduled wedding in the new year.

Information Minister Leckford Mwanza Thotho said Malawi is a sovereign state with its own laws and the two will be accorded fair trial based on Malawi laws.

The Monjeza-Chimbalanga case comes back before the Blantyre Chief Resident Magistrate Court on Friday (5 February).

The two, who have since pleaded not guilty and remanded in jail, were charged with three counts of practicing unnatural acts between males and gross indecency, both felonies that can see them in jail for up to 14 years on conviction.

The couple's lawyers, however, argue that the homophobic laws run counter with the new constitution - adopted in 1995 - that states that no one shall be discriminated against based on, among other things, their sexual orientation.
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