Page last updated at 18:20 GMT, Monday, 4 January 2010

Malawi gay wedding couple lose bail appeal

Steven Monjeza (L) and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, 04/10
Steven Monjeza (L) and Tiwonge Chimbalanga (R) face 14 years in jail

A Malawian judge has rejected a bail application by two gay men charged with public indecency after getting engaged.

Nyakwawa Usiwa-Usiwa said Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza would be safer in custody while they wait their trial - expected to start next week.

The pair, believed to be the first gay couple in Malawi to start the process of getting married, pleaded not guilty to the charges last week.

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

Denying them bail, Mr Usiwa-Usiwa said: "The accused have the right to bail but considering the public interest their case has generated it is the view of the court that they are safer in police custody than out there."

He said the pair would be given bail on 10 January if prosecutors had not finished investigating by then.

Cheering crowds

The BBC's Raphael Tenthani in Blantyre, where the case was held, says Mr Monjeza looked downcast throughout the hearing and burst into tears when the magistrate remanded them in custody.

At their court appearance last week, the 26-year-old had hinted that he would consider calling off the proposed wedding.

"I am sad I am going back to Chichiri Prison," he said.

"The conditions are terrible there. People are exaggerating this thing. I may just as well dissolve this marriage."

After the latest hearing the pair were surrounded by hundreds of people who were chanting and cheering.

Our correspondent says Mr Chimbalanga, 20, who dresses in women's clothes, acknowledged the crowd with a wave as they shouted: "Aunt Tiwonge, Aunt Tiwonge".

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

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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