When 26-year-old Steven Monjeza and 20-year-old Tiwonge Chimbalanga celebrated an engagement ceremony in the African nation Malawi, it was symbolic of their love. But the legal ramifications that followed have been too severe, say critics of the way that the men were arrested under the country’s decency laws and kept confined for months in a maximum-security prison.
As the case has dragged on, Malawi has become yet another African nation making headlines for its anti-gay laws, along with Uganda, where a proposed law would provide the death penalty for some gays. Earlier this month, the trial of Monjeza and Chimbalanga was postponed, according to a March 22 article at Xtra.com. The judge agreed to allow the defense to use the additional time to gather witnesses. Although the postponement allows the defense more time, Chivuli Ukwimi of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission criticized the court’s decision, saying, “This ruling is the most recent in a line of deeply troubling decisions and actions by the Malawian authorities in this case, including the decision to deny bail to Steven and Tiwonge, claiming that their continued incarceration is for their own safety.”
Xtra.com also reported that the men have been forced to undergo intrusive physical examinations in order for authorities to determine whether they have engaged in anal sex.
A protest that took place March 22 in London condemned the months that the men have spent in prison since their arrest late last December. Gay Malawi refugee Edi Phiri spoke at the protest, saying, “I urge my President and government to intervene to release Steven and Tiwonge. These two men don’t deserve the way they are suffering in jail.” Added Phiri, “The delay in the trial and the postponed verdict is a sign that the government and judiciary are split. Some officials want to convict and others don’t. They keep on putting off the verdict. It is unfair to treat Steven and Tiwonge like this.” Noted Phiri, “Malawi’s anti-gay laws are not African. They were imposed by the British colonizers nearly two centuries ago.”
Peter Tatchell, the head of British GLBT advocacy group OutRage!, said, “This protest was organized in response to an appeal for help from the jailed men.
From their prison cell in Malawi, Steven and Tiwonge sent a message to me in London, urging international pressure to secure their release.
“Tiwonge and Steven have been arrested, prosecuted and held in jail solely because of their sexual orientation,” Tatchell continued. “We want them released, all charges dropped and the repeal of Malawi’s anti-homosexuality laws. These laws violate the equality and non-discrimination provisions of Article 20 of the Malawian Constitution and Articles 2, 3 and 4 and the African Charter of Human and People’s Rights, which Malawi has signed and pledged to uphold.”
Added Tatchell, “Tiwonge and Steven love each other and have harmed no one. But they could be jailed for up to 14 years” under Malawi’s decency laws.
International pressure has been mounting on the men’s behalf. Amnesty International has “adopted” the two as “prisoners of conscience,” said the director of AI’s British branch, Kate Allen. “Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga have committed no criminal offense,” Allen stated. “It is vital that as many people as possible join us in writing to the Malawi authorities calling on them to release the two men.”
Moreover, members of the British Parliament’s House of Commons have signed a motion that calls for the men’s release. International monetary supporters have also warned that rights abuses in Malawi–including abuses aimed at gays–could impact aid revenue. Though the country is heavily dependent on foreign aid, Information Minister Leckford Mwanza Thoto said in January that Monjeza and Chimbalanga were “clearly breaking the laws of Malawi,” and added that, “As [a] government we cannot interfere in the court process.” Added Thoto, “We depend on our Western friends, yes, but we are a sovereign country.”
Malawi’s GLBT advocates have been energized by the case, but public sentiment in Malawi also seems to be hardening against gays, according to a Feb. 3 article posted at Voice of America’s Web site VOANews.com. Malawi journalist Watipaso Mzungu was quoted in the article as saying, “Malawi has its own values and structures, which should be respected. So we don’t necessarily expect MPs from Britain or anywhere else to dictate to Malawi on what they should do.”
“Almost every religion is against homosexuality,” added Mzungu, “so it’s just a very small minority group that wants homosexuality to be passed or like to accept homosexuality in Malawi. But almost everybody is against homosexuality.”
Mzungu described the attitudes of most people in Malawi regarding gays. “Just last week on Friday, I was in Mwanza, a certain district in the southern region again. I was talking to different people, including the traditional leaders, the common people. I was asking them if maybe they would like a homosexuality law to be passed in the constitution of Malawi. But they seem to be against that law,” related the journalist. “They don’t want Malawi to allow homosexuality.”
The article noted that human rights advocates who had spoken out on behalf of Monjeza and Chimbalanga had also been allegedly taken into custody by police, in one case for the possession of “pornographic” material related to sexual health. The article also noted that the Centre for the Development of People had come under pressure from the Malawi government, as well as various religious factions, including Muslims, Christians, and Hindus.
But Mzungu denied reports that supporters of the two young men had been targeted for arrest, saying, “The police spokesperson for the southern region in Malawi told me that it is true that the police went to the office of CEDEP, but they didn’t arrest anybody apart from just impounding or confiscating some materials which were pornographic, but they didn’t arrest anybody.”
The journalist has also suggested that the repudiation of Malawi’s anti-gay laws has only led to the possibility that laws against homosexuals will be made even more stringent. “On Friday, the members of parliament were meeting in Lilongwe where one of the members of parliament criticized the NGOs,” said Mzungu, “most local and international NGOs, which are pushing the members of parliament to amend the constitution section which talks against homosexuality. It means that the members of parliament too are not happy with what these two gay people have done in Malawi.”
The trial’s delays may be over soon. Following two attempts by the defense to have the case dismissed, and two occasions on which the men have been denied bail, Magistrate Nyakwawa Usiwa Usiwa has ruled that the trial will commence on April 3. “In the balance of probability the State has established a prima-facie case against the two as charged,” Usiwa Usiwa ruled, according to a March 22 Reuters story.
Kilian Melloy reviews media, conducts interviews, and writes commentary for EDGE Boston, where he also serves as Assistant Arts Editor.