NAIROBI, Kenya, May 20, 2010 -- A gay couple in Malawi has been sentenced by a judge to 14 years of hard labor, the maximum sentence, for committing unnatural acts and gross indecency.
The same judge found Steven Monjeza, 26, and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, 20, guilty of the crimes earlier this week. The couple was arrested last December after holding a traditional engagement ceremony and have remained in prison since then.
Judge Nyakwawa Usiwa-Usiwa reportedly told the men he wanted to "protect" the public from them.
"I will give you a scaring sentence so that the public be protected from people like you, so that we are not tempted to emulate this horrendous example," he said.
The couple, with the help of local and international human rights groups, is expected to appeal.
The case has drawn international condemnation of anti-homosexuality laws in Malawi, including 65 members of the British Parliament signing a motion condemning the prosecution and the international human rights group Amnesty International adopting the couple as prisoners of conscience.
About 40 percent of Malawi's economy is dependent on international aid. Peter Tatchell, spokesperson for the London-based gay human rights group OutRage!, told ABC News that this verdict may cause some donor countries to rethink aid to Malawi.
"We may start to see countries redistribute aid," said Tatchell. "They may start giving aid directly to ngos instead of to the government."
Tatchell, who calls the verdict "outrageous," said even according to the law, the prosecutor failed to prove the couple was guilty of committing any crime.
"Steven and Tiwonge freely confirmed their love for each other, but the prosecution has entered no credible evidence that they had committed any sexual acts," said Tatchell, who has been working with local human rights groups supporting and advocating for the men.
Malawi is one of at least 37 Sub-Saharan African countries explicitly criminalizing homosexuality. Some of the countries, like Sudan and parts of Nigeria, have laws making homosexuality a crime punishable by death. Uganda is in a heated debate over a proposal, often referred to as the "kill the gays" law, which would also give the death penalty to certain homosexual acts and life imprisonment for simply being gay.
Anti-Gay Laws in Africa
In South Africa, the only country in Africa that has laws protecting gays from discrimination, lesbians have been subjected to "corrective rapes" by gangs, with human rights groups accusing law enforcement officials there of looking the other way.
Western donor countries like the United States and Britain have expressed unhappiness with the current trend of anti-gay laws in Africa. In the United States, members of Congress signed a bi-partisan resolution condemning the Uganda law and all others on the continent which criminalize homosexuality.
Other European countries have threatened to cut off aid to countries who continue to champion what they call discriminatory laws.
African countries counter with the argument that homosexuality is both anti-African and anti-Christian; its an "unnatural" way of life being thrust upon them by the liberal West. But Tatchell says that many of these laws don't stem from African societies but were introduced during colonialism.
"Nearly all the anti-gay laws in Africa were imposed by Western colonial powers like Britain during the 19th century. They are not African laws at all," says Tatchell. He says there's also a new wave of "cultural colonialism" being imposed by the Christian right in the United States.
"In some African countries, the anti-gay campaign is being stirred up by right wing evangelical churches from the United States," says Tatchell. "They are sending preachers to Africa who are inciting local Christians to crack down on homosexuality."