This is amazing. Malawi's president has pardoned and ordered the release of Steven Monjeza (left) and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, the Malawian couple sentenced to 14 years in prison and convicted of "unnatural acts" and gross indecency" after holding an engagement ceremony, reports The Guardian and the BBC.
Mr Bingu Wa Mutharika, speaking as UN chief Ban Ki-moon visited his country, said he had ordered their immediate release. The case has sparked international condemnation and a debate about homosexuality in the country. Mr Ban hailed the president's decision as "courageous". "This outdated penal code should be reformed wherever it may exist," he said.
Correspondents say Malawi is a deeply conservative society where religious leaders equate same-sex liaisons with Satanism. Mr Mutharika, who has in the past dismissed homosexuality as alien, said he had set them free on humanitarian grounds. "These boys committed a crime against our culture, our religion and our laws," he said after meeting Mr Ban. "However, as the head of state I hereby pardon them and therefore ask for their immediate release with no conditions."
Secretary General Ban is due to address Malawi's national assembly later. The UN chief is expected to ask legislators to change the nation's harsh laws against homosexuality.
When Monjeza and Chimbalanga were sentenced on May 20th, the magistrate said: "I will give you a ... sentence so that the public [will] be protected from people like you, so that we are not tempted to emulate this horrendous example." The pair were then separated and sent to prisons more than 40 miles apart.
The case has drawn international condemnation. Human rights groups as well as the United States and Britain, Malawi's largest international donors, and of course the United Nations, pressured the conservative southern African nation to release the couple. High profile celebrities such as Elton John and Madonna, who adopted two children from Malawi and is building a school there, also spoke out.
Homosexuality is illegal in at least 37 countries in Africa, including Malawi. HIV/AIDS activists say the harsh penalties encourage anti-gay sentiment in the region and dissuade gay men who are HIV positive against seeking treatment.
Next question: Can this couple live safely in Malawi?