Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga

The judge in the case of the arrested Malawi gay couple had been expected to issue a verdict on Monday, but instead ordered them to stand trial.

“The court has established a prima facie case against the accused persons,” said magistrate Nyakwawa Usiwa-Usiwa in Blantyre, who ordered the full trial to take place in April.

Tionge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza’s legal team will be allowed to call witnesses in their defence, but the men will remain jailed.

The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) said that it was “dismayed” by the ruling, while Amnesty International called on the Malawian authorities to immediately and unconditionally release the couple.

Chimbalanga (20) and Monjeza (26) were arrested in December last year after they held a traditional engagement ceremony attended by friends and family that was subsequently reported and sensationalised in the Malawian media.

They were charged with “unnatural offences” and “indecent practices between males” and have been in prison ever since. They face 14 years in jail.

The handcuffed men were brought into a packed courtroom by riot police on Monday to hear their fate, while people crowded outside the court.

“This ruling is the most recent in a line of deeply troubling decisions and actions by the Malawian authorities in this case, including the decision to deny bail to Steven and Tionge, claiming that their continued incarceration is for their own safety,” said IGLHRC Southern Africa Program staffer Chivuli Ukwimi.

Activists have pointed out that the arrests, prolonged and arbitrary pre-trial detention, and the subsequent mistreatment of Tionge and Steven while incarcerated – including being subjected to forced anal examinations to “confirm” sodomy charges – violate their rights under the Malawian Constitution.

“This case has had devastating effects on efforts to address the spread of HIV among men who have sex with men in Malawi,” said Cary Alan Johnson, IGLHRC Executive Director. “Many of these men have gone underground for fear of arrest and criminalisation.”

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