Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga
From the White House to organisations closer to home, there’s been a wave of condemnation of the sentencing on Thursday of two Malawian men, Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, to 14 years in prison – simply for being gay.
South Africa’s official opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), said in a statement that it believes “that laws that control how individuals choose their sexual partners have no place in a 21st century Africa”.
The organisation’s Shadow Minister of International Relations Kenneth Mubu added “The African Renaissance, and all it stands for, represents this continent’s future; what’s happening in Malawi is a return to the past.”
Mubu urged the South African government to “distance itself from this tragic and wrongheaded ruling” and to be “actively emphasising to fellow African states the seminal importance in democratic statehood of protecting human liberties”.
The Joint Working Group, a network of LGBTI organisations throughout South Africa, said that its members were horrified by the sentencing. “Not only is this sentence draconian in nature but the conviction itself was both procedurally problematic and based on the implementation of laws that defy all notions of human rights not least those enshrined in Malawi’s own Constitution,” said the network.
It too urged the South African government to take a stand on the matter, accusing it of “conveniently” forgetting its constitutional human rights obligations “the moment it is operating outside of our borders”. The JWG said: “they are guilty not only of a failure to speak out but even of actively contributing to the problem with actions such as the appointment of Jon Qwelane as our High Commissioner to Uganda…”
The White House on Thursday issued an official statement condemning Monjeza and Chimbalanga’s conviction. “The criminalisation of sexual orientation and gender identity is unconscionable, and this case mars the human rights record of Malawi. We urge Malawi and all countries to stop using sexual orientation or gender identity as the basis for arrest, detention, or execution.”
The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) together with the Malawi Center for the Development of People (CEDEP) said that were “outraged” by the sentence.
“This harsh sentence compounds the impact of an already unjust conviction,” said Chivuli Ukwimi, IGLHRC Health and Human Rights Officer. “Its devastating effect on Steven and Tionge is just the beginning. It will endanger lives by driving at-risk communities underground, beyond the reach of programs to address HIV and AIDS.”
Dunker Kama, Administrator of CEDEP, added, “There is nothing immoral or indecent about love. The only thing immoral or indecent is throwing innocent people in jail for more than a decade.”
The two organisations said that they will continue to support Monjeza and Chimbalanga in their expected appeal in the High Court.
Amnesty International, which officially considers Monjeza and Chimbalanga “prisoners of conscience,” said that the sentence “sends a strong and unacceptable message that discrimination is legally justified in the Malawi justice system”.
Michelle Kagari, deputy Africa programme director at Amnesty International, added: “We will continue to campaign on this matter and work tirelessly to see that they are released unconditionally and as soon as possible.”
British Human Rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, of the gay rights group OutRage!, slammed the court’s ruling. “Steven and Tiwonge love each other and have harmed no one. Yet they get a sentence more severe than some rapists, armed robbers and killers,” he said.
“The sentence echoes the era of dictatorship under President Hastings Banda, when personal prejudices determined law enforcement, and when individual rights were crushed and dissenters persecuted.”
Tatchell has been supporting and advocating for the jailed men since their arrest and detention in December last year; helping arrange prison visits and the delivery of food parcels, medicine, letters of support and clothes to the detained men.