By Associated Press Writer
updated 5/18/2010 9:22:34 AM ET 2010-05-18T13:22:34

A judge convicted a gay couple in Malawi Tuesday of unnatural acts and gross indecency after a trial that drew worldwide condemnation of this southern African country's colonial-era laws on homosexuality.

Steven Monjeza, 26, and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, 20, had been jailed since their arrest Dec. 27, the day after they celebrated their engagement with a party that drew crowds of curious, jeering onlookers.

Blantyre Chief Resident Magistrate Nyakwawa Usiwa said the sentencing will take place on Thursday. The couple could be imprisoned for up to 14 years.

Hearings in the trial have drawn Malawians who have ridiculed the couple, an indication of views on homosexuality in this traditional society — and elsewhere in Africa.

Undule Mwakasungula, a gay rights activist in Malawi, said the couple's decision to declare their relationship with an engagement ceremony, a first in Malawi, appears to have been personal, not political. Mwakasungula said others have been prosecuted under the law, but this case was different because the two men were open about their homosexuality.

"This is the most publicized case related to that penal code," he said.

Mwakasungula said he did not know the couple before their arrest, but that he and other activists have supported them since. He said they were relaxed before the verdict, but concerned that if they were released, they could be attacked by Malawians who have threatened them.

Mwakasungula said activists had planned to take the two to a safe house if they had been found innocent, but that given the laws and the climate in Malawi, a guilty verdict had been expected.

"It's a challenge in terms of us pushing for legal reform," Mwakasungula said. "We can't be using a law that was enacted in 1940."

The verdict is "extremely disturbing," said Michaela Clayton of the Namibia-based AIDS & Rights Alliance for Southern Africa, saying it could encourage anti-gay sentiment in the region as well as set back the fight against AIDS. Gay people forced underground in Africa are unlikely to seek counseling and treatment for AIDS, she and other activists said.

Becoming more assertive
Homosexuality is illegal in at least 37 countries on the continent. In Uganda, lawmakers are considering a bill that would sentence homosexuals to life in prison and include capital punishment for "repeat offenders." Even in South Africa, the only African country that recognizes gay rights, gangs have carried out so-called "corrective" rapes on lesbians.

Clayton said gays and other minorities in Africa had in recent years become more assertive about their sexual orientation and about claiming their rights, which could have led to the backlash.

"We have to keep on being strategic about the way we push this agenda forward," she said.

Priti Patel of the Southern African Litigation Centre, an independent rights group, said Monjeza and Chimbalanga could appeal on the grounds that the laws under which they were prosecuted violate the country's 1994 constitution. But an earlier attempt by their lawyer to have the case thrown out on those grounds was rejected.

Malawi's government has been defiant in the face of international criticism over the prosecution of Monjeza and Chimbalanga. Months before the verdict, Information Minister Leckford Mwanza Thoto said it was clear the two had broken the law.

Malawi church leaders have backed the government, saying homosexuality is "sinful" and the West should not be allowed to use its financial power to force Malawi to accept homosexuality. Malawi relies on donors for 40 percent of its development budget.

The controversy, though, has emboldened some human rights activists in Malawi. The Center for the Development of People was recently formed to fight for the rights of homosexuals and other minorities.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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