Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai (right)

In a welcome change of position, Zimbabwe’s Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai has told the BBC that gay and lesbian equality should be protected by the country’s new constitution.

“It’s a very controversial subject in my part of the world. My attitude is that I hope the constitution will come out with freedom of sexual orientation, for as long as it does not interfere with anybody,” he told Newsnight’s Gavin Esler.

“To me, it’s a human right,” Tsvangirai added.

It’s unclear what led Tsvangirai to change his mind. In March last year he was quoted by the state-owned Herald newspaper as saying that he supported President Robert Mugabe’s stance on gay rights.

“The President has spoken on the issue of gay rights, men who breathe to other men’s ears,” he said at the time. “Never, I don’t accept that culture. Why do you look for other men when women make up 52 percent of the population? Men are few.”

Chesterfield Samba, director of Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ), expressed his scepticism about Tsvangirai’s latest comments.

“So Tsvangirai speaks in support of us when he is abroad and fails even to respond to the numerous letters we have sent him here? What can we do to make him pay attention to us? This flip flopping is not helping our cause,” Samba wrote on Facebook.

Zimbabwe is currently ruled by an uneasy coalition that includes Tsvangirai’s MDC and Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party. Mugabe has previously stated that he would never allow gay and lesbian rights to be enshrined in the country’s constitution.

Gay sex – along with members of the same sex holding hands, hugging or kissing – is illegal in Zimbabwe with penalties of up to three years in jail. LGBT people and activists are often harassed by officials and police.

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