Page last updated at 15:42 GMT, Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Malawi 'gay wedding' couple deny indecency charges

Men holding hands, file image
A gay rights group has recently been formed in Malawi

Two gay men arrested in Malawi after getting engaged have pleaded not guilty to charges of gross public indecency.

Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza appeared at a packed court in Malawi's biggest city Blantyre, where they will ask for bail on Monday.

The pair held a traditional engagement ceremony over the weekend - believed to be the first gay couple in Malawi to start the process of getting married.

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

The BBC's Raphael Tenthani in Blantyre says large crowds of onlookers went to see the couple in court.

People are exaggerating this thing. I may just as well dissolve this marriage
Steven Monjeza

He says some people congratulated them but other shouted insults.

Prosecutors say they will send the pair to hospital to prove they have had sex together.

They face three charges of unnatural practices between males and gross indecency.

Mr Monjeza, 26, hinted that he may consider calling off the proposed wedding, as he was sent back to prison.

"I am sad I am going back to Chichiri Prison," he said. "The condition are terrible there. People are exaggerating this thing. I may just as well dissolve this marriage."

Mr Chimbalanga, 20, dressed in women's clothes, refused to speak to journalists, beyond accusing them of writing "stupid" things.

They were arrested on Monday at the home they share.

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.

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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