A judge in Malawi has ordered the maximum 14 year sentence in prison with hard labor to the gay couple who has been publicly humiliated, jailed since December and detained in substandard conditions. After holding a public engagement ceremony to declare their love to one another, the judge says its the "worst" case he has seen and others "must not" follow in their example.
More than a thousand people packed the courthouse square for the circus-like atmosphere, reports Reuters.
The couple, Steven Monjeza, 26, and 20-year-old Tiwonge Chimbalanga, were arrested after they got engaged in a traditional ceremony in late December. "I sentence these two ... to a maximum sentence because I want us to stop Malawian sons and daughters from copying the same sex marriages which are un-Malawian and not in our culture and religious beliefs," Chief Resident Magistrate Nyakwawa Uisiwausiwa said. "This is the first case of its kind in Malawi ... this is the worst case of its kind," he added.
Dozens of people packed the court to hear the sentencing. Police closed roads around the building and a nearby bank was closed as more than a thousand people descended on the court. Tiwonge was calm as the judge pronounced the sentence, which includes hard labor, but Monjeza was visibly shaking at the prospect of going to jail. Police whisked the two away in armed vehicles shortly after the sentencing.
Monjeza (left) and Chimbalanga were convicted of "gross indecency and unnatural acts." That would be the public engagement ceremony.
Defense lawyers plead for leniency, report the BBC.
"Defence lawyer Mauya Msuku had argued for a lighter sentence, pointing out that the pair's actions had not victimised anyone. 'Unlike in a rape case, there was no complainant or victim in this case,' he said after the pair were convicted on Tuesday. 'Here are two consenting adults doing their thing in private. Nobody will be threatened or offended if they are released into society.' Michelle Kagari, deputy Africa director of Amnesty International, called the sentence 'an outrage', reports the AP news agency. She described the pair as 'prisoners of conscience'n and said Amnesty would continue to campaign for them to be freed."
Defense attorneys will appeal to Malawi's high court.
On Tuesday, the U.S. State Department said it was "deeply disappointed" in the conviction. No word yet will the conviction have any bearing on the State Department's $115 million plus annual foreign assistance budget to Malawi.
The Presbyterian Church in Malawi is pleased with the verdict.
African human rights and HIV/AIDS groups are slamming the ruling. HIV/AIDS activists say it will encourage anti-gay sentiment in the region and dissuade gay men who are HIV positive against seeking treatment.
Watch CNN's report from this week AFTER THE JUMP ...