Page last updated at 12:51 GMT, Monday, 22 March 2010

Malawi gay couple face full trial

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

A judge in Malawi says that two gay men arrested in December after getting engaged have a case to answer.

A lawyer said the couple would now call defence witnesses. Tiwonge Chimbalanga, 20, and Steven Monjeza, 26, deny charges of gross indecency.

They have now spent almost three months in custody in what is being seen as a test case for gay rights in Malawi.

The judge said a full trial would proceed in April. Homosexual acts carry a maximum prison sentence of 14 years.

But the men's lawyers have argued that their constitutional rights are being violated.

The courtroom was packed for the hearing - the first stage in the legal process. About 50 people were reportedly unable to get in.

"The court has established a prima facie case against the accused persons," said magistrate Nyakwawa Usiwa-Usiwa.

The BBC's Raphael Tenthani in Blantyre says the two men looked relaxed during the proceedings. They waved to hundreds of on-lookers outside court as they were driven back to the city's Chichiri Prison.

"We are sad that the couple will continue suffering for choosing to live the way they were born," said Gift Trapence from the recently formed gay rights group Centre for the Development of People (CEDEP).

Malawi is a deeply conservative society.

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

Human rights groups and diplomats have joined the debate, with donors including the UK and Norway warning that the country should respect human rights or risk international isolation.

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