President Joyce Banda

Reuters has reported that the government of Malawi has suspended laws criminalising homosexuality, at least for the moment.

The news agency said on Monday that Justice Minister Ralph Kasambara had also ordered police not to arrest gays and lesbians.

The move was made as Malawi’s parliament is set to debate the legitimacy of the largely colonial-era laws.

“If we continue arresting and prosecuting people based on the said laws and later such laws are found to be unconstitutional it would be an embarrassment to government,” Kasambara told Reuters.

“It is better to let one criminal get away with it rather than throw a lot of innocent people in jail,” he said.

The news comes as a surprise. Malawi’s new president Joyce Banda recently reversed an earlier promise to end the country’s ban on homosexual acts, claiming that the nation is not ready for it.

In May, Banda said that she supported overturning the country’s ban on homosexuality during her first state of the nation address.

In September, however, she told The Associated Press that her views are not backed by the majority of Malawians and she could not impose her beliefs on the country.

If Malawi ends the ban on same-sex sexual activity it would become the first African country to decriminalise homosexuality since 1994.

Homosexual acts are illegal in Malawi with penalties including corporal punishment and up to 14 years’ imprisonment. In February 2011, the late President Bingu wa Mutharika, Banda’s predecessor, signed a bill into law that specifically criminalised lesbianism.

Malawi’s anti-gay laws and poor human rights record have led to international donors suspending aid to the country.

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