A high court judge’s denial of bail to Malawi’s first openly gay couple as their trial in Blantyre enters its final phase continues to draw international attention from gay rights advocates. Homosexuality is illegal in Malawi, and the couple, Steven Monjeza, 26, and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, 20, who staged a traditional wedding ceremony in December, could face up to 14 years in jail if convicted.
The case has drawn condemnation from 34 British MP’s, and Scottish parliamentarians. Amnesty International has demanded the couple’s unconditional release. But journalist Watipaso Mzungu, who is covering the trial for the Daily Times newspaper, says that the international criticism has been counterproductive.
“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,” he said.
Mzungu contends that strongly rooted nationwide opposition to same-sex weddings is not easily abandoned, even in a democracy like Malawi.
“Almost every religion is against homosexuality, 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,” he notes.
The two defendants have three attorneys, backing from international gay rights organizers and at least three Malawian NGO’s, including the Centre for Development of People (CEDEP). But Mzungu says his travels across the country register very little public support for legislation to decriminalize the offense.
“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. They don’t want Malawi to allow homosexuality,” he said.
CEDEP itself has been hard-pressed by government and religious leaders of Malawi’s many religious denominations, which include Christians, Moslems, and Hindus during the trial. A political controversy arose last month over whether the organization’s director Gift Trapence and three human rights defenders were ordered into police custody for playing a role in defense of the same-sex defendants.
Malawi police deny the activists were arrested. Mzungu explains one incident in early January which the British rights defender Outrage! claims involved an arrest on trumped up charges of pornography contained in the safe-sex HIV educational materials that were being distributed by CEDEP.
“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,” he reports.
Rights groups contend the prosecution of the newlywed couple runs contrary to section 20 of the Malawi constitution, which outlaws discrimination, and contravenes equal treatment tenets of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which the Lilongwe government has endorsed. However, reporter Mzungu says that the international criticism has succeeded in generating a backlash push for Malawi to enact even tougher penalties for those convicted of illicit homosexuality.
“On Friday, the members of parliament were meeting in Lilongwe where one of the members of parliament criticized the NGO’s -- most local and international NGO’s, 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,” he explains.
Although stiffer penalties could mean longer jail sentences, the Daily Times journalist concedes that a high incidence of homosexuality in Malawi prisons may ultimately deter the harsher fines.
The defendants are next due to appear in court on February 9. That’s just ten days after the country’s president Bingu Wa Mutharika took over the leadership of the continent-wide African Union. Watipaso Mzungu says that until now, Mr. Mutharika has been careful to avoid speaking out on the case.
“As of now, the president has said nothing. But the minister of information and civic education, Honorable Leckford Mwanza Thotho, has always told the media that government will not interfere and will not allow to be pushed around by foreign NGO’s to pass the law to allow homosexuality in Malawi. That’s the government stand,” he insisted.