Malawi president announces pardon of jailed gay couple

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Malawi's President Bingu wa Mutharika on Saturday pardoned a gay couple jailed for 14 years after holding a same-sex wedding, following talks with UN chief Ban Ki-moon.

"I have decided that with effect from today, they are pardoned and they will be released," Mutharika told reporters as he sat beside the United Nations secretary general.

"Not because I condone what they have done... but from a humanitarian point of view," he said.

Ban commended the lifting of the sentence, which had been met with outrage by the United States, Europe and rights groups, and called on Malawi's parliament to change the country's laws.

Last week a Blantyre court sentenced Steven Monjeza, 26, and his 20-year-old partner Tiwonge Chimbalanga to 14 years hard labour for sodomy, after they were arrested late December following a symbolic wedding.

The couple's lawyer Mauya Msuku welcomed the decision, calling it a "step forward towards recognising the rights of minorities."

"We still maintain that the two were charged and jailed based on the penal code which is archaic and unconstitutional," he told AFP.

The United States applauded the release of the gay couple, declaring that "these individuals were not criminals and their struggle is not unique," said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.

"We must all recommit ourselves to ending the persecution and criminalisation of sexual orientation and gender identity," Gibbs said in a statement.

Ban commended the decision during a speech to parliament. The news was met with silence from Malawi's lawmakers and loud applause from foreign diplomats and donors in the gallery above.

He called on lawmakers to change the legislation regarding gay sex, which is illegal in Malawi and a majority of African countries.

"It is unfortunate that laws that criminalise people on the basis of their sexual orientation should still exist in some countries," he told the chamber.

"I am confident that Malawi will take appropriate steps to update its laws in a way that lives up to international standards," he told a press conference afterwards.

Ban said Mutharika insisted the decision was not taken due to foreign pressure.

"We discussed in depth on this matter, and he told me would consider pardoning" them, Ban told reporters. "I told him that if he was going to pardon, it would be better for his leadership."

The May 20 ruling was condemned by Western countries including former colonial power Britain saying it was "deeply dismayed".

London welcomed the pardon Saturday, noting that "Britain has a close and strong partnership with Malawi and it is in this spirit that we raised our concerns about these convictions with the government of Malawi."

"The UK believes that human rights apply to everyone regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity," a Foreign Office spokesman said.

Leading AIDS campaigners had also voiced concern that the jailing could hurt the fight against the disease, widespread in southern Africa, by forcing gay men underground.

The case shocked Malawi's conservative society, where sex topics are largely taboo. When handing down the sentence, magistrate Nyakwawa Usiwa Usiwa told the two men that the maximum punishment with hard labour was to serve as a warning to Malawians.

In January the couple had appealed to the Constitutional Court to toss out the case, but the top court refused to hear the appeal.

"They injured our traditions and culture," Mutharika said Saturday before announcing the pardon.

"They challenged the laws of this country. In all aspects of reasoning, in all aspects of human understanding, these two gay boys were wrong, totally wrong."

Thirty-eight out of 53 African countries criminalise consensual gay sex, which is punishable by death in some nations, according to Human Rights Watch.

Nearby South Africa is the only country in the continent to recognise same-sex marriages.

© 2010 AFP

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