Defenders of Malawi Couple Arrested

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday January 7, 2010

Two Malawi men who hosted a celebration in honor of their impending wedding were arrested under the country's anti-gay laws. Now the case is widening: three of the men's defenders have also been placed under arrest.

A press release from the U.K. GLBT equality group OutRage! alerted the media that three human rights workers involved in the defense of the committed gay couple had been arrested by Malawi authorities. "A total of three Malawian human rights defenders have now been arrested," the release stated. "All have been associated with the campaign to defend Steven Monjeza (26) and Tiwonge Chimbalanga (20), who held a same-sex engagement ceremony in Malawi two weeks ago."

The leader of OutRage!, Peter Tatchell, described the couple as "the first same-sex couple to begin the process of getting married in Malawi," and reported that, "Both men are being held on remand in Chichiri Prison on charges of homosexuality, pending their trial on 15 January."

The charges faced by the human rights activists who have been arrested after standing up for the couple included a pornography rap that resulted from one of the activists possessing educational materials relevant to safer sex practices, Tatchell said. "The three arrested activists have been bailed pending further police investigations," he said. "One is facing pornography charges relating to safer sex and HIV education materials. He was required to report to the police today."

A fourth man was expected to turn himself over to authorities. Said Tatchell, "All four campaigners work for the Centre for the Development of People (CEDEP), which does HIV prevention work among marginalised Malawian communities, including sex workers, migrants, prisoners and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.

"Fortunately, all these activists have good legal representation, headed by Mauya Msuku," Tatchell continued. "Mr Msuku is planning to submit a new legal application to secure bail for Steven and Tiwonge and to get the charges against them dropped. His submission argues that Malawi's laws against homosexuality are discriminatory and therefore unconstitutional."

The couple were liable to suffer invasive investigational procedures, Tatchell reported. "Yesterday, the two men were taken to hospital, where they were going to be subjected to intimate internal medical examinations, in a bid to determine whether they have had sex with each other," Tatchell said. "Both Steven and Tiwonge were planning to refuse to give their consent. We are still awaiting news on whether these examinations were carried out against their will. If they were, it would constitute unlawful assault and could invalidate the police case against them."

Another legal argument that could lead to the case being thrown out is that the men's legal rights have been violated under the terms of the Malawi constitution. A Jan. 7 article at Afrique en ligne said that the constitution, adopted in 1995, guaranteed non-discrimination for Malawi citizens; some argue that those provisions extend to sexual minorities. "Section 5,199 and 200 of our new Constitution guarantees freedom of conscience, privacy and expression, including sexual orientation," said human rights attorney Chrispine Sibande.

But anti-gay sentiment in many African nations is high, and anti-gay laws are correspondingly harsh. A bill pending in the Ugandan parliament has drawn global controversy because it proposes punishing gay men who repeatedly have sex with death; capitol punishment would also be levied against HIV-positive men who have sexual contact with others, as well as those convicted of same-sex rape.

In Malawi, the law punished "puggery"--sex between consenting adults of the same gender--with up to 14 years imprisonment. So-called "unnatural" intimacy is illegal, but more often gays are persecuted under decency laws. Such was the case for Monjeza and Chimbalanga: their Dec. 26 engagement celebration was cited as an example of "gross indecency." The men were placed under arrest on Dec. 27, and subsequently denied bail. "The accused have the right to bail, but considering the public interest their case has generated, it is the view of the court that they are safe in police custody than out there," Chief Resident Magistrate Nyakwawa Usiwa-Usiwa declared.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.