, BLANTYRE, May 20 – A Malawi court on Thursday sentenced a gay couple who staged an illegal same-sex wedding to 14 years in prison with hard labour, the maximum term in the southern African country.
Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza were arrested on December 28 after their symbolic wedding and accused of violating "the order of nature". They have been in jail ever since.
Homosexuality is illegal in Malawi and many other African countries.
"I sentence you to 14 years imprisonment with hard labour each. That\’s the maximum under the penal code," magistrate Nyakwawa Usiwa Usiwa told the two men in a courtroom in the capital Blantyre.
"I will give you a scaring sentence so that the public be protected from people like you so that we are not tempted to emulate this horrendous example," the judge added.
"Malawi is not ready to see its sons getting married to its sons."
The couple looked subdued when the sentence was handed down and were quickly rushed out of the packed courtroom.
As they were escorted away under heavy police guard, hundreds of curious onlookers outside the court shouted at them, with one woman yelling, "Malawi should never allow homosexuality at any cost."
The sentence could be appealed at the high court, said the judge.
The men\’s lawyer, Mauya Msuku, said he would consult with his clients on filing an appeal.
The judge Tuesday convicted both men of engaging in gay sex.
In unusually graphic language, 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 similarly contrary to the natural order.
Human rights organisations said the sentence was a blow for human rights and minority groups and the fight against HIV/AIDS.
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.
While international donors have expressed concern about the trial, Protestant churches in Malawi have urged the government to uphold its ban on homosexuality, which religious leaders described as "un-Christian".
The Malawi case has highlighted a toughening stance across Africa against homosexuality.
In January, 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 the country\’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".
But the top court refused to consider that appeal.
The trial included often lurid questioning by prosecutors, who asked witnesses for graphic details about Chimbalanga\’s body because he wears women\’s clothes and lives his life as a female.