Saturday 29 May 2010

Malawi President pardons Steven and Tiwonge

All Updates on Steven and Tiwonge will now be to this post

By Paul Canning

  • Pardoned and ordered released
  • Safe house being sought
  • Report that both want to leave Malawi
  • Government Minister threatens rearrest 
  • Confusion on the couple's plans
  • Malawian gay activists say plan to 'test President' with public weddings
  • President demands 'end to talking' about couple 
  • 'New' TV interview isn't, features Tiwonge defending the couple
    Malawian President Bingu Wa Mutharika has pardoned Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, both given 14-year jail terms earlier this month after being convicted of gross indecency and unnatural acts. Mutharika ordered their immediate release.

    The announcement came after Mutharika met with United Nations General Secretary Ban-Ki Moon.

    The two have now been released and this website understands are now together at a safe house away from the capital, Blantyre.

    Update 1 June: We still understand that Tiwonge is in hiding but Nyasa Times and Africa News are reporting him 'missing'.

    The Guardian has an extremely disturbing story about Steven:
    Monjeza's family members said his partner would not be welcome in their village.

    Kelvin Kaumira, in his 60s, said the community was "fuming" over the incident. "People here are furious," he said. "There are so many beautiful women in this village looking for a hand in marriage."

    Zione Monjeza, an aunt of 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."

    Such is the widespread public hostility to homosexuality that there are fears of reprisals against both men.

    They were booed and jeered when they appeared in court after the symbolic engagement ceremony that saw them arrested last December.

    Trapence added: "My staff have been unable to meet Monjeza. He can't be seen around Chileka [village]. He could be afraid of the hostility from the public."

    Elders from Monjeza's clan gathered to discuss his release and form a plan of action. His relatives expressed concern about him turning to alcohol. His uncle, Khuliwa Dennis Monjeza, said his nephew was "a notorious person. He is unrepentant. He has been drinking since he was released on Saturday night".

    Relatives claimed Monjeza was drunk on a local gin brew called kachasu or "kill me quick".

    "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."

    The uncle made clear that Monjeza's partner should not seek a reunion with him. "The issue of the same-sex marriage is abnormal in our culture," he said.

    "We want to warn his partner Tiwonge that he should never set his foot in this village ... otherwise we shall deal with him. Our name, history and culture cannot be spoiled with one child known as Steve."

    When the Guardian approached Monjeza, he replied: "I can't just talk to you. I am selling my story. Give me K100,000 (£460)." He then dropped his demands to K60,000. He added: "I need money. Good money. I have just come out of prison. I need to survive."
    Update June 3: AFP reports that at brief press conference in Lilongwe June 2 the couple were both present and issued a statement calling the President a "caring father" and a "tolerant president."
    "The president has demonstrated that he is a caring father, a considerate and tolerant president. We wish him good health in his everyday endeavours as he continues leading the country to respecting human rights and to economic prosperity," the statement said.
    Update June 4: There's a local TV interview with them. Jimmy Kainja who runs a Malawi affairs blog from London informs us that this interview (now removed from YouTube) is not recent. It took place last December, just after the arrest. Kainja noting that this was while the two were still in custody which, in his opinion, means the interview should not have taken place because it could have prejudiced the case.

    Kainja translates the content:
    "The reporter is trying to get the couple to denounce what they had done (the alleged wedding) and somewhat apologise to Malawians whom the reporter said the couple had offended. The reporter is using leading questions and authoritative language. Tiwonge, the one wrapped in a piece of cloth, did very well in his answers. He stood for his beliefs - telling the reporter that "he was within his right to chose his sexual orientation". Steven got a bit more intimidated and didn't express himself well."
    Box Turtle Bulletin has a longer translation, their contributor agrees with Kainja's analysis:
    "The whole thing looks like it was set up as a public humiliation for the two. They were made to recant their story and to apologize to all Malawians."

    "[Steven says] he was tricked by “akunja” – foreigners – into marrying Tiwo, who he was told was a woman."

    "Steven “admits” that he just wanted to be famous, prompting the presenter to turn to the camera and say, “he admits it himself – he only did these things because he wanted to be famous.”"
    Kainja adds:
    "Most Malawians - including 'leading reporters' bought into what I consider a stupid conspiracy theory that the couple had been payed by international LGBT campaigners to stage the "wedding" in order to see how Malawi authorities would react. I don't know the origins of the theory but Malawi is a very conservative and religious country so the theory could have its basis on the grounds that religious folks are trying to say Malawians cannot have same sex couples, which is ridiculous because they know it happens underground."

    "It also think it is a fair assessment that the reporter was (is) ignorant about LGBT issues and he didn't do his homework for the interview. In the end he felt safer to intimidate them - which was more than possible because they were in custody - rather than have a rational conversation, which the couple could have easily won."

    "It is also a possibility that the reporter acted on instructions from his bosses because otherwise the interview should not have been aired as it had the potential to pervert the course of justice."
    May 31 Update: Chimbalanga told AFP in a phone interview that "he was in Lilongwe to "have a breather", while his partner had returned to his village".

    Gift Trapence, director of the Centre for the Development of People (CEDEP, described by AFP as "underground gay movement" but is actually a human rights organisation and also described as responsible for paying the couple's legal fees when they were actually paid by funds raised by others), told AFP that the group was trying to find jobs for Chimbalanga and Monjeza. However this website understands that at least one of them wants to leave the country.

    Meanwhile Wongani James Phiri of The Malawi Gay Rights Movement (Magrim, which has a history of activism in the country) is quoted by Africa News as saying that:
    "Malawi has many gays; but these people are suppressed. We plan to hold two weddings this year to see if these people's (gays and lesbians) rights will be respected. We are all Malawians."
    AFP says that the President said June 2 that the country should "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 authorised to comment on the gays. You will spoil things."
    The couple's wedding was "satanic because they committed a crime against our culture, against our religion and against our laws," but said he pardoned them because "to err is human and to forgive is divine."
    RFI reports that Mtharinka said:
    "I am looking at our donors now...what they will say about the pardon. Is it possible to stop aid to Malawi because of two people who are insane?"
    Mutharinka and Ban Ki-Moon

    President Mutharinka said in a statement after meeting Moon:
    "I have decided that with effect from today, they are pardoned and they will be released. These boys committed a crime against our culture, our religion and our laws. However, as the head of state I hereby pardon them and therefore ask for their immediate release with no conditions. I have done this on humanitarian grounds but this does not mean that I support this."
    Update June 1: According to a member of the U.N. delegation who spoke to the New York Times but asked to remain anonymous:
    “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."

    Ki-Moon said Tuesday 25 May he would raise the convictions, which he criticised as violating human rights principles that ban both discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, as well as the criminalization of sexual acts between consenting adults, with the President. Moon repeated his call for the repeal of sodomy laws after meeting Mutharinka.

    UNAIDS executive director Michel Sidibe and the head of the Global Fund, Michel Kazatchkine met Mutharika on Tuesday 25 May to express concern about anti-gay laws.

    Kazatchkine told a press conference after the meeting that "criminalising sexual behaviour drives people who engage in same-sex relations underground" and hampers HIV/AIDS programmes.

    Malawian reaction

    Initial reaction in comments to The Nyasa Times, Malawi's leading newspaper, from Malawians was largely positive. The newspaper editorialised that "pressure or not under pressure, the President has done the right thing to pardon the gay couple."

    Update June 1: Since the release there has been a steady stream of threatening comments in Malawian online media as well as false reporting.

    Malawian news sources have reported that 'Peter Tatchell has offered the couple UK asylum' and this has since been reported more widely. This is completely false. Nyasa Times published 3 June about this.

    Update June 3: Amnesty International issued a press statement warning of further harassment.
    “While we are delighted that the couple have been pardoned, we remain concerned that Steven and Tiwonge may be subject to future arrest and harassment under the same laws if they continue their relationship, because the presidential pardon applies only to the purported acts for which they were convicted” said Michelle Kagari, the deputy director of Amnesty International’s Africa program.
    Journalist Watipaso Mzungu of the Malawi Daily Times newspaper said Malawians’ reactions have been mixed.  And, he said President Mutharika’s decision continues to raise a lingering question in a country that imposes stiff bans on homosexual behavior.

    Peter Tatchell ,who has been supporting the couple since their arrest, has reported disquiet in Malawi about the length of the sentence - longer than that for most rapists and murderers.

    Exiled critics of Malawi's President praised his decision. UK based author Mzondi Lungu posted to Facebook:
    “0ur fights and voices against the imprisonment of gays has paid dividends, the President has ordered their immediate release. That is still not enough, the law against gays must be abolished as Malawi is democratic enough to protect the minorities from torture and degradation. Thank you Ngwazi Bingu for listening to our voices.”
    But Canadian based Tom Likambale wrote:
    “Bingu’s gesture on the release of the gays is going to be empty if it is not accompanied by a repeal of the law that caused their incarceration in the first place. This issue was more than just Chimbalanga and Monjeza. It was about the treatment of a minority. Bingu’s brother is justice minister. So let him talk to his brother. Repeal this stupid law.”
    Gift Trapence, a spokesperson for Malawian human rights organisation Centre for the Development of People (CEDEP) who have been supporting the couple said:
    "We're very happy and we praise the president for his maturity, but there is still a long way to go to end the culture of hate."
    Rearrest threat, safety fears

    Government Minister Patricia Kaliati, has threatened them with rearrest, telling the BBC:
    "It doesn't mean that now they are free people, they can keep doing whatever you keep doing." They could be rearrested if they "continue doing that".
    The couple's lawyer Mauya Msuku.said:
    "The pardon only applies to the offence under which they were convicted. If, for example, they go back and the state is of the view that they have recommited the offence, the pardon will not apply."
    The New York Times has reported that "Mr. Monjeza grew up on the outskirts of Blantyre. His relatives repeatedly have said they feel disgraced and would never welcome him back."

    "Mr. Chimbalanga was raised in a small village beyond the huge tea plantations that dominate the Thyolo district, 40 miles from Blantyre. His uncle, the village headman, banished him in his teenage years, but his five siblings remained loyal, thinking their brother “bewitched.”"

    "The couple have been in jail since Dec. 28, two days after they threw themselves an engagement party — a chinkhoswe in Chichewa — at the Blantyre lodge where Mr. Chimbalanga worked as a cook and housekeeper, referring to himself as “Auntie Tiwo” and insisting that he was a woman."

    "This public celebration drew dozens of uninvited guests. Some hooted and jeered, and at least one phoned a local newspaper, which published a front-page article about “gay lovebirds” partaking in “the first recorded public activity for homosexuals in the country.”"

    Undule Mwakasungure, a gay rights activist in Malawi, told The Associated Press on Saturday that he was concerned about the couple's safety, and working with other activists to find a safe house for them and possible arrange for them to leave the country at least temporarily.

    "There is homophobic sentiment. I think they might be harmed," Mwakasungure said.

    Edi Phiri, who fled Malawi for Britain five years ago after being beaten because he was gay, told the BBC that the two might need to seek asylum outside of Malawi.

    "They will be out of prison, but what will happen next?" Phiri said. "The community will see them as outcasts. I don't think they will be safe in Malawi."

    A cousin of Chimbalanga, Maxwell Manda, told The AP earlier this week that Chimbalanga wanted to leave Malawi upon his release. This website understands that Tiwonge has said he wants to leave Malawi.

    Governments praise pardon

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

    The British government said that “human rights apply to everyone regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”

    Earlier today protests against the couple's jailing had been held in London and New York.

    London protest for Steven + Tiwonge, 29 May

    New York City protest 29 May

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    1. "at the Blantyre lodge where Mr. Chimbalanga worked as a cook and housekeeper, referring to himself as “Auntie Tiwo” and insisting that he was a woman."

      You transphobic fuckers! You should be ashamed of yourselves. Take the T out of your name immediately.

    2. As we posted earlier [], Peter Tatchell has made a point of trying to establish how Tiwonge identifies.

      "It would be wrong to refer to Tiwonge as ’she’ and ‘transgender’ unless we have express instructions / permission to do so from Tiwonge. In the meantime, in my statements I have avoided labels like ‘gay’ and ‘he’; although I have referred to them as men as this is what they are legally, biologically and in terms of this prosecution."

      The quote you cite is from the New York Times.

      Please point out exactly where we have been 'transphobic'?

    3. 1) The byline of this article reads 'by Paul Canning'. Quotes throughout the article are linked and inset. The transphobic quote I cite isn't inset or linked to anybody else therefore it is the work of Paul Canning.

      2) Tiwonge has identified herself as a woman several times. You obviously don't believe her. You are taking advice from Peter Tatchell rather than her and refuse to use gender neutral language or the correct gender. You may have 'avoided labels like 'gay' and 'he'' but you haven't avoided 'Mr.'.

      3) You acknowledge in your comment above that you don't know how Tiwonge identifies herself or her gender (despite the fact that she has identified herself as a woman) but you don't bother to mention this in the article. You focus on sexual orientation and don't mention anything about gender identity.

      4) Your comment above which states Peter Tatchell's reading of Tiwonge's gender identity:
      "although I have referred to them as men as this is what they are legally, biologically and in terms of this prosecution."
      absolutely stinks and I am calling you out on your continued transphobia in using this as a defence.

      NB - I have no way of knowing if Tiowonge is intersex or trans - I also don't know if she even knows of these terms, but she identifies as a woman and knows she is a woman.

      Please read the following posts:

      There are others all over the net as well that can help you in your reporting.

    4. 1. It's not my work, it's from the New York Times. I can reedit it to show more clearly it's a quote but you going out looking for transphobia and if you'd read the *dialogue* I had with Natascha Kennedy you'd understand what dialogue is.

      2. You say about my tweeted link to Natascha's comment on her Guardian piece "Pointing out crappy transphobic comments on Natacha's post doesn't help you" - so I don't now know what you are on about. Natacha was responding to my providing information from Peter Tatchell. Peter is taking instructions directly from Tiwonge, including statement approval. It is coverage in the local press and NYT that is the source of debate over how Tiwonge identifies but I agree with Peter that it is wrong to say she is transgender and also wrong to say she identifies as a woman until Tiwonge confirms this. You are not in contact with Tiwonge, Peter is. All you actually know is what you've read sourced from Malawi's press and the NYT.

      3. I posted about Tiwonge's gender identity including Peter's statement before. I am not in the habit of repeating myself. If you think this issue is more important than practically helping them then don't expect the rest of us to bow to your whims.

      4. Is just ridiculous. Peter is stating a fact.

      Apart from Natascha's piece, and the subsequent dialogue, Jim Burroway has published an excellent piece here on this issue

      I do not need your 'help'.

    5. I am glad to see that you have ammended this article.


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