Page last updated at 16:27 GMT, Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Malawi gay couple to face court after engagement

Men holding hands, file image
Homosexual acts are punishable by 14 years in jail in Malawi

Two gay men arrested in Malawi after getting engaged are to be charged with gross public indecency, police say.

"We arrested them because they committed an offence; homosexuality in Malawi is illegal," police spokesman Davie Chingwalu told the BBC.

Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza held a traditional engagement ceremony over the weekend - believed to be the first gay couple in Malawi to do so.

Homosexual acts carry a maximum prison sentence of 14 years in Malawi.

The pair are being held in separate cells in Blantyre until their case is heard, Mr Chingwalu told the BBC's Network Africa programme.

Engagement party dress

The BBC's Raphael Tenthani in Blantyre says the pair have been seen relaxing at the police station with Mr Tiwonge still wearing the dress he wore at the engagement party.

Even if you charge them for 20 years, you cannot change their sexual orientation
CEDEP's Gift Trapence

He says they may have to spend a few more nights in jail as the judiciary is on its Christmas recess and they will not be able to appear in court until next Monday.

Our correspondent says Malawi is a deeply conservative society, but recently a group of campaigners came together to form a gay rights organisation, Centre for the Development of People (CEDEP).

CEDEP's executive director, Gift Trapence, says the laws used to arrest the couple are invalid because they are against the Bill of Rights enshrined in the 1995 constitution.

"Even if you arrest them or charge them for 20 years, you cannot change their sexual orientation. They are what they are," he told the BBC.

"So the issue is in a democratic era - if you are arresting people based on their sexual orientation, are you doing justice to the fundamental human rights of these individuals?" he said.

Correspondents say some voices in government have also started to call for more openness about homosexuality as the authorities try to tackle high rates of HIV/Aids.

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