Tiwonge Chimbalanga, 20, and Steven Monjeza, 26, were sentenced on Thursday to 14 years in prison, the maximum sentence for their crime: holding a public engagement ceremony last December. Homosexuality is illegal in Malawi, which is about 80 percent Christian and 13 percent Muslim. The judge said that he gave the couple the maximum possible sentence because it was a “shocking case to our morality.”
Malawi Information Minister Leckford Mwanza Thoto has said that, “as government, we cannot interfere in the court process.” In 2003, Malawi pardoned 592 prisoners for its 39th anniversary of independence from Great Britain. In 2004, 320 prisoners were released for Easter by the previous Malawi president and another 341 prisoners were released for Ramadan by the current President Mutharika. In 2005, 651 prisoners were freed for the New Year and 800 more prisoners were freed for Ramadan. Though the government has not done this in the last 3 years, it is clearly not outside of custom to do so. Like many African countries, Malawi’s prisons are appallingly overcrowded. Due to increases in crime rates, Malawi prisons now house about twice as many inmates as they were intended to house, making them unhealthy and dangerous.
The response of the international community has been strongly and entirely on the side of the gay couple. Human rights group Amnesty International has called on Malawi officials to release the couple. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, has said that the law is in violation of international treaties. British officials have condemned the sentencing and are considering a reduction in aid to Malawi, one of the 20 poorest countries in the world. The U.S. State Department has released a statement on the conviction, saying, “The United States is deeply disappointed,” but that’s as far as the statement went. Malawi receives $80-100 million a year from the United States.