President Joyce Banda

Human rights groups have welcomed the announcement of Malawi’s suspension of colonial era laws that ban gay sexual activity.

On Monday, Malawi’s Justice Minister Ralph Kasambara said that laws criminalising same-sex sexual conduct had been suspended pending a decision on whether or not to repeal them.

Amnesty International described the move as “a historic step in the fight against discrimination in the country”.

Kasambara explained that he wanted debate on the issue before parliament decides whether to keep the laws or not.

“The idea to issue a moratorium is that 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,” he stated on radio last week.

“Amnesty International welcomes Minister Kasambara’s statement and hopes it serves as the first step towards ending discrimination and persecution based on real or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity in Malawi,” commented Noel Kututwa, Amnesty International’s southern Africa director.

Sections 153 and 156 of Malawi’s Penal Code criminalise same sex sexual conduct between men, and those convicted face up to 14 years imprisonment, with or without corporal punishment.

Section 137A of Malawi’s Penal Code criminalises “indecent practices between females,” with anyone found guilty liable to a prison term of five years.

Human Rights Watch also issued a statement about the suspension, saying that it “is the right thing to do, and should serve as an inspiration to other countries that criminalise homosexuality”.

The organisation’s Africa advocacy director, Tiseke Kasambala, said: “Malawi has taken a bold step forward, putting respect for its own constitutional guarantees of equality front and centre. No one should go to prison for consensual relations with someone of the same sex, and Malawi’s decision has given hope to thousands who risk prison sentences under such laws.”

Kututwa urged the government “not to lose momentum on this basic human rights issue and to ensure the full repeal of these discriminatory and hate-filled laws”.

The question of the decriminalisation of same-sex intimacy in Malawi has been debated since President Joyce Banda assumed power in April.

Banda initially told parliament that she would take steps to decriminalise same-sex intimacy, but told reporters from international media in September that Malawians might not be ready for such a change, and suggested that members of parliament should take the question of decriminalisation back to their constituencies.

The justice minister’s call for a moratorium on arrests is now being seen as a compromise position, one that will permit parliament to debate possible legislative change.

In 2010, two persons, Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza, were sentenced to 14 years imprisonment in Malawi on charges related to same-sex sexual conduct. They were later pardoned following international condemnation.

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