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RIGHTS-MALAWI: Country Not Safe for Homosexuals

Claire Ngozo

LILONGWE, Mar 13 2010 (IPS) - Malawi is quickly becoming unsafe for homosexuals as the country’s police service recently launched a campaign to hunt down and arrest prominent people who are suspected of being gay.

Chimbalanga and Monjeza (r) have been charged under colonial-era laws against homosexuality that are in direct conflict with the constitution.  Credit: Claire Ngozo/IPS

Chimbalanga and Monjeza (r) have been charged under colonial-era laws against homosexuality that are in direct conflict with the constitution. Credit: Claire Ngozo/IPS

The police service claim to be investigating issues related to ‘homosexual tendencies’ as homosexuality is against the law in Malawi.

The hunt follows the traditional engagement ceremony of two men, Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza, which took place in the country’s commercial capital, Blantyre, on Boxing Day. The couple was arrested two days after their union and have since been in custody as they await trial.

“We launched investigations because we have information that there are prominent people behind Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza,” said Dave Chingwalu, the police spokesman for Malawi’s southern region.

Top members of society including members of parliament, priests and academics are suspects in the investigation, according to Chingwalu. The police have not divulged the names of the people that are being targeted in the investigation.

The southern African country has in recent months become more homophobic. On Feb. 9, Davis Mpanda, 29, was given a 10-year prison sentence after being found guilty of buggery. Sections 153 and 156 of the Penal Code criminalise homosexuality and anyone convicted under these sections may be jailed for a minimum of five years and a maximum of 14 years.

Magistrate Diana Mangwana of South Lunzu Magistrate’s Court, in Blantyre convicted Mpanda together with his partner, a 15-year-old boy. (The age of consent and for marriage in Malawi is 15 years.) The boy told the magistrate that he consented to having sex with Mpanda five times.

The court set the boy free, saying his punishment would be “the psychological trauma he will live with for the rest of his life”.

“These offences are against Malawi’s moral values. The convict is an abuser because what he did to the juvenile is sexual corruption. He took advantage of the boy to please his own unnatural desires,” Mangwana stated in her court ruling.

Another person who has fallen victim to Malawi’s anti-gay stand is Peter Sawali, 21. On Feb. 8, he was convicted and sentenced to two weeks community service by the Blantyre magistrates’ court for mounting posters promoting gay rights along the commercial capital’s main road, the Masauko Chipembere Highway.

“Sawali was found guilty of conduct likely to cause breach of peace,” said Beatrice Mwachande, the police spokesperson for Blantyre.

Sixty-year-old Tony Chirwa was arrested on Feb. 19 after being accused of sodomising a 23-year-old man. Chirwa is in police custody.

A top government official has also expressed her disdain against homosexuality. Minister of Gender, Child and Community Development Patricia Kaliati, on Jan. 19 did not take kindly to a court decision which saw a suspected lesbian being set free by a magistrate court in Malawi’s tea-growing district of Mulanje.

Nellie Somanje of Mulanje, where Kaliati is a member of parliament, was found not guilty by the court after being accused of “having carnal knowledge of two girls” aged 15 and 18, who she employed.

Mulanje Second Grade Magistrate, Lameck Mkwapatira, indicated in his judgement that he acquitted Somanje because there was a lack of evidence against her and that the girls had told the court that they had consented to the sexual relationship.

However, Kaliati accused the magistrate of promoting homosexuality and “setting a bad precedence” for the country. The minister told the local media that she has banished Somanje from the area and has since sent her to her “district of origin”, Mangochi, on Lake Malawi’s shores.

Rights organisations are concerned about the apparent targeting of homosexuals. The hunt for gay people will only prompt this “vulnerable group” to go underground, according to Gift Trapense, director of human rights organisation the Centre for the Development of People.

Trapense told IPS that the HIV prevalence rate among men who have sex with other men is “very high” at 21.4 percent. The prevalence rate for the country is 12 percent. “It is already an issue of concern that they are under great threat from HIV. The hunt that the police have set up is a total violation of human rights as they are denying gay people the right to live freely,” said Trapense. “They’re going too far by hunting gay people down.”

Meanwhile, the country awaits the fate of the now-prominent couple, Monjeza and Chimbalanga. Blantyre chief resident magistrate Nyakwawa Usiwa Usiwa has set Mar. 22 as the day he will deliver his ruling on the matter. The case has attracted a lot of interest both within Malawi and internationally.

Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and some British members of parliament have since condemned the treatment of gay people in Malawi. After their arrest, the couple was subjected to a mental examination and other medical tests.

The government of Norway, one of Malawi’s donor countries, warned the government of Malawi to respect gay rights or risk tainting its human rights record.

“We have noted that Malawi has made a lot of progress in terms of human rights but there is specific concern on the continued segregation of the gay community,” Norwegian Minister of International Development Erik Solheim told a news conference. Solheim was on a short visit to Malawi.

“Globally, the gay issue is not only about human rights but also the protection of minorities like homosexuals. The state should never harm the basic rights of individuals,” said Solheim.

The country’s famous gay couple have since had their efforts to challenge the trial in the magistrates’ court thwarted. Lawyers representing Chimbalanga and Monjeza had asked the constitutional court to take a position on the matter. They were arguing that the Penal Code that was used to arrest the pair violates their constitutional rights to privacy, dignity, belief, conscience and self expression.

But the country’s chief justice, Lovemore Munlo, threw out the application on the basis of legal technicalities. Munlo stated in his ruling that the application by the couple’s lawyers lacked clarity on the proceedings that the constitutional court was expected to certify on.

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