, LILONGWE, May 29 – Malawi President Bingu wa Mutharika on Saturday announced the pardon of a jailed gay couple who were sentenced to 14 years for holding the country\’s first same-sex wedding.
"I have decided that with effect from today, they are pardoned and they will be released," Mutharika told reporters after meeting United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
"From a humanitarian point of view, they are released and pardoned forthwith."
The sentencing had drawn outrage from the United States, Europe and rights groups.
A top Malawi daily also slammed the maximum sentence delivered on Thursday of 14 years in jail with hard labour, although there was no official reaction from other African countries, most of which also make being gay a crime.
"Unfortunately, the maximum sentence, though it is within the prescribed law, goes a long way to portray us as a cruel nation and no wonder the sentence has attracted a lot of criticism," the independent Nation newspaper said.
"There is something grossly wrong," the paper said.
Tiwonge Chimbalanga, 20, and Steven Monjeza, 26, were arrested in late December after holding Malawi\’s first same-sex wedding. They were accused of violating "the order of nature".
The United States had said it was "appalled" at the sentence.
"We view the criminalisation of sexual orientation and gender identity as a step backward in the protection of human rights in Malawi," US State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters.
"We are particularly disturbed by the severity of the sentence," he said.
The White House said separately it was "unconscionable" to criminalise sexual orientation.
Britain was "deeply dismayed" and raised concern about allegations that the men were mistreated in police custody. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office urged Blantyre to review its laws against homosexuality.
"The UK, along with our international partners, will continue to press the government of Malawi on this issue," it said in a statement.
UN human rights chief Navi Pillay said the ruling was "blatantly discriminatory" and based on a law that dated back to the colonial era and should be scrapped, with the conviction repealed.
Pillay warned the conviction could have a "disastrous effect" on the fight against AIDS by sending homosexuals underground.
Southern Africa has most of the world\’s HIV cases, with around 14 percent of Malawi\’s 13 million citizens infected with the virus.
"It drives sexual behaviour underground and creates an environment where HIV can more easily spread," added The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.
The European Union said that Malawi had violated its international human rights obligations.
"The EU expresses its concern about homophobia and discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation in Malawi," it said in a statement, also urging the country to review its laws against homosexuality.
The German government\’s human rights commissioner, Markus Loening, said the sentence was against international law and should be suspended.
Ireland said it was "entirely disproportionate", and the country would work with its partners "for a strong EU response".
The pair should never have been arrested in the first place, Amnesty International said. "That they have been sentenced to 14 years of hard labour is an outrage," said its deputy Africa director Michelle Kagari.
"We will continue to campaign on this matter and work tirelessly to see that they are released unconditionally and as soon as possible," said Kagari.
Criticism in South Africa, the only African nation to legalise same-sex marriage, also focussed on its own government\’s failure to respond to the sentence.
"No one is asking the Jacob Zuma administration to send the army to invade Malawi and free Chimbalanga and Monjeza," said the Cape Times in its editorial.
"But the president and his ministers should at the very least express their horror that in a neighbouring country… two men can be sent to prison, with hard labour, simply for loving each other, and saying so."