Malawi gay couple freed hours after presidential pardon, warned homosexuality remains illegal

By Raphael Tenthani, AP
Sunday, May 30, 2010

Malawi gay couple freed after presidential pardon

BLANTYRE, Malawi — A gay couple from Malawi arrested and sentenced to 14 years in prison after they threw a lavish engagement party was freed from prison hours after receiving a presidential pardon, prison officials said Sunday.

Prison Service spokesman Evance Phiri said Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza were released late Saturday, hours after President Bingu wa Mutharika pardoned them without condition.

“We were asked to release them immediately,” Phiri said, adding that they were released around 9:20 p.m. local time (1920 GMT).

It was not clear where the men went after their release. They were not at their Blantyre home when an Associated Press reporter visited Sunday.

After Saturday’s pardon, activists were searching for a safe house for the couple, fearing they could be attacked upon release.

Malawi had faced international condemnation for the conviction and harsh sentence given to the two men, who were arrested in December, a day after celebrating their engagement.

Malawi is among 37 African countries with anti-gay laws, and strong attitudes against homosexuality.

After giving his pardon on “humanitarian grounds only,” Mutharika stressed that homosexuality remains illegal in the conservative southern African country.

A judge convicted and sentenced Chimbalanga and Monjeza earlier this month on charges of unnatural acts and gross indecency under colonial-era laws. Crowds of Malawians had heckled the two during court hearings, with some saying that 14 years at hard labor — the harshest possible sentence — was not long enough.

Their release was welcomed by the U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, international rights groups and the White House.

In Washington, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs praised the move, urging an end to “the persecution and criminalization” of sexual orientation and gender identity.

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