Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Malawi: An “unjust and cruel” guilty verdict for Steven + Tiwonge

By Paul Canning

The Malawi gay couple at the centre of world attention following their arrest last year have been found guilty of "unnatural acts and gross indecency". They were arrested on 27 December, the day they celebrated their engagement with a party that drew crowds of curious onlookers.

They face a possible prison sentence of 14 years.

"The state has proved beyond reasonable doubt that the two were married," Magistrate Nyakwawa Usiwa said.

The judge convicted both men of engaging in gay sex which he said was "against the order of nature."

The Guardian quoted angry residents and relatives from Machinjiri township, where they live on the outskirts of Blantyre, saying they will not allow them to return home when they are set free.

One comment on the Nyasa Times website was typical:
"I have been waiting for this date to come and am a happy person ever, it shows that Malawi itself is not a colony anymore, it have its on power to reinforce the law without listening to all these useless countries."
Said another:
"I think sentencing them is under estimating the punishment, I would be the first to stone them given chance, how on earth can two men marry?"
But the Guardian also quotes a retired economist, Thindwa, saying: "we are giving them moral support by bringing them food, money and clothes to prison." The couple have also received support from others in Malawi including the lawyers association.

Peter Tatchell has been in continuous communication with them and has issued the following statement:
“This is an outrageous verdict. While Steven and Tiwonge freely confirmed their love for each other, there was was no credible evidence that they had committed any illegal homosexual acts."

“The law under which they were convicted is a discriminatory law that only applies to same-sex relations. It is unconstitutional. Article 20 of Malawi’s constitution guarantees equality and non-discrimination. The law in Malawi is not supposed to discriminate.”

“Malawi's anti-gay laws were not devised by Malawians. They were devised in London in the nineteenth century and imposed on the people of Malawi by the British colonisers 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."

“I expect both men will now appeal against the verdict and against any sentence that is handed down. Steven and Tiwonge’s best hope is that a higher court will overturn this unjust, cruel verdict."

“With so much hatred and violence in the world, it is bizarre that any court would criminalise two people for loving each other."

“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 robbers and violent criminals. Denying Steven and Tiwonge bail was an act of vindictiveness."

“I appeal to governments worldwide, especially the South African government, to condemn this harsh, bigoted judgement and to urge its reversal.”

Prior to the verdict, Tiwonge and Steven issued a defiant message from their prison cell. It affirmed their love for each other and thanked their supporters in Malawi and worldwide.

Tiwonge said:
“I love Steven so much. 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."

The two men’s messages were relayed from inside Chichiri Prison in Blantyre, Malawi, to Tatchell.

Tiwonge and Steven stressed their gratitude for the support they have received from fellow Malawians and from people around the world:
“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 Tiwonge.

Steven 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.”

Photo by Brett Lock of OutRage!

Peter Tatchell expressed his admiration of the two men:
“Steven and Tiwonge are showing immense fortitude and courage. 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. Although suffering in prison, they are unbowed. They continue to maintain their love and affirm their human right to be treated with
dignity and respect."

“They have taken a pioneering stand for the right to love. They love each other, have harmed no one and believe that love should not be a crime. It is nobody’s business what they do in the privacy of their own home. There is no evidence that they have committed any crime under Malawian law. They should never have been put on trial. Even prior to their conviction, they had already spent nearly five months
behind bars."

“OutRage! is supporting Steven and Tiwonge. For the last four months, we have arranged extra food to supplement the men’s meagre, poor quality prison rations."

“We pay tribute to the other people and organisations who are giving legal and medical assistance to the detained men. This is a huge help. Steven and Tiwonge have asked me to communicate their appreciation."

Sixty-seven British MPs have signed a House of Commons Early Day Motion (EDM 564), which condemns the arrest and trial of Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga.

Mark Steven Kirk (Illinois Republican representative) and Tammy Baldwin (Wisconsin Democrat representative), have introduced a resolution to the United States Congress calling on the government of Malawi to “respect the fundamental human rights of its citizens and accuses Malawian authorities of “prosecuting two innocent individuals solely on the basis of sexual conduct.”

Amnesty International has adopted Steven and Tiwonge as Prisoners of Conscience.

Tatchell says that until quite recently Steven and Tiwonge did not realise that they had been adopted as Prisoners of Conscience by Amnesty International. When this news was relayed to them in prison they were, to quote one source: “Very happy with the effort made by Amnesty International to accord them this status. They offer their thanks to Amnesty.”

Tiwonge and Steven have also expressed appreciation for the protest on their behalf in London on 22 March.

The two men thanked London-based African and British activists who have lobbied the Malawian Ambassador and the Commonwealth Secretary-General and Human Rights Unit to seek their release and to secure medical treatment for Steven.

Steven’s condition has stabilised but he remains very ill. He is thin and weak and has jaundiced eyes, according to an eye-witness who saw him last weekend.

Tiwonge and Steven are urging continued protests to “get our release and the dropping of charges by the Malawi government.”

Write a letter to Steven and Tiwonge

Help boost their spirits. Show them you care. Send a letter or postcard of support to Steven and Tiwonge:

Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza, Prisoners, Chichiri Prison,
P.O.Box 30117, Blantyre 3, Malawi


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