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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, May 28, 2010 - Volume 38 Issue 22
International furor over harsh Malawi sentence
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International furor over harsh Malawi sentence

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

Steven Monjeza and his Transgender partner Tiwonge Chimbalanga have been separated by prison authorities in Malawi, where they are now serving sentences of 14 years hard labor, according to British human rights activist Peter Tatchell.

Tatchell, who has remained in contact with the couple since their arrest last December, said that Monjeza had been transferred to the notorious Zomba prison, while Chimbalanga remains, for the present, in Chichiri prison, where the two had been held without bail since their arrest.

"The decision by the Malawian authorities to split up jailed lovers, Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, is a cruel, malicious and vindictive attempt to cause the couple psychological distress and heartache," Tatchell said in a statement issued May 26.

"Steven has been transferred this week to Zomba prison, separating him from his partner, Tiwonge," Tatchell's statement continued.

"Previously, the couple were jailed together in Chichiri prison, where Tiwonge remains. Although held in separate cells, in Chichiri they were able to see each other briefly from time to time.

"Now they will have no contact at all. This move will be particularly hard for Steven. Of the two, he is more vulnerable and stressed. Tiwonge, in contrast, is robust and resilient.

"I fear that this separation may have an adverse impact on Steven's mental and physical well-being. He was seriously ill for a month and is still not fully well. His isolation from Tiwonge is likely to be a severe blow to his morale. It could cause his health to relapse."

Chimbalanga was born biologically male, but has always identified as a woman. She met Monjeza at the church both attend, where she is a recognized member of the woman's group.

Monjeza and Chimbalanga married December 28 last year, and were arrested the next day for "gross indecency" and "unnatural acts," crimes which carry a maximum 14 year sentence under Malawi's colonial-era law against homosexuality.

The couple was convicted May 18 and given the maximum sentence May 20.

SEVERE SENTENCE PROTESTED
The severity of the sentence surprised many observers, both inside and outside Malawi. Given the poor conditions in Malawian prisons and the lack of appropriate medical care afforded to prisoners, 14 years' hard labor may amount to a death sentence.

"Anecdotal reports suggest that most Malawians think the 14-year jail sentence is too harsh. Even many people who disagree with homosexuality seem to believe it is excessive and disproportionate. Some armed robbers, child sex abusers, rapists, and killers get lighter sentences," Peter Tatchell said.

"This is a travesty of justice and it's a shame to the history of justice in this country," Samuel Magombo - identified only as a "resident of Blantyre," Malawi's capital - told reporters as the couple were led away from the sentencing hearing.

"They have used a colonial kind of legislation to ban these innocent people & when people give the argument that we are born to make children why do we not arrest the Catholic priests. Do they make children when they are in their celibate life?" Magombo continued.

"Malawi being a signatory to so many international human rights instruments has an obligation to protect all people, including minority rights. And it seems we are facing a challenge and we don't recognize these minority rights, so this is a challenge that we as a nation have to see how we can do the proper thing," said Malawian human rights activist Undule Mwakasungula.

INTERNATIONAL REACTION
Both the White House and the U.S. State Department strongly condemned the trial and the harsh punishment dealt out to the couple.

"The United States strongly condemns the conviction and harsh sentencing of Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga in Malawi. The criminalization of sexual orientation and gender identity is unconscionable, and this case mars the human rights record of Malawi. We urge Malawi and all countries to stop using sexual orientation or gender identity as the basis for arrest, detention, or execution," the White House statement said.

"The United States is appalled by the conviction and sentencing of Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza to 14 years in jail with hard labor. & The conviction and sentencing are a significant step backward for the Government of Malawi's human rights record. Malawi must abide by its human rights obligations," said Assistant Secretary of State Philip Crowley in a May 20 statement.

"We view the criminalization of sexual orientation and gender identity and sentencing to 14 years' hard labor as a deeply troubling violation of human rights. Decriminalization of homosexuality is integral to the continued protection of universal human rights in Malawi. It is also crucial to the urgent need to fight the spread of HIV/AIDS - a fight in which the United States is closely allied with the Malawian people.

"We remain disturbed by harassment, persecution, and exclusion based on sexual orientation or gender identity wherever it occurs. The State Department will continue to stand against any efforts to marginalize, criminalize, and penalize members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender community worldwide. We urge Malawi and all countries with similar laws to take the necessary measures to ensure that sexual orientation or gender identity may under no circumstances be the basis for criminal penalties, in particular arrests, detentions, or executions."

On May 21, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay issued a statement condemning the trial and sentence as "blatantly discriminatory."

"Laws that criminalize people on the basis of their sexual orientation are by their nature discriminatory, and as such are in apparent violation of a number of key international treaties and instruments," Pillay said. "It sets an alarming precedent for the treatment of homosexuals in the region."

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said that he would travel to Malawi on May 29, and take up the issue directly with President Bingu wa Mutharika.

U.S. State Department spokesperson Noel Clay told SGN that the State Department has also spoken directly with Malawi's government.

"We talk about these issues all the time," Clay said, "and not only with Malawi. I wouldn't be able to tell you at what level, whether it's with the head of state [Mutharika] or not."

APPEAL
Lawyers for the couple have said they will appeal the court's ruling. Efforts to get Monjeza and Chimbalanga out of prison pending appeal have been unsuccessful, however.

"Lawyers for Steven and Tiwonge say their appeal may be heard around the end of June. They suggest that Steven might be returned to Chichiri prison once the appeal process begins, which could be in about four weeks or so," Tatchell said.

"The couple's lawyers are optimistic that on appeal to the higher courts the 14-year sentence will be reduced or annulled.

"I hope they are right but I am skeptical, given that the High Court refused to give Steven and Tiwonge bail and refused to rule that their prosecution was unconstitutional. My fear is that the appeal court may reduce the jail term but not revoke it," Tatchell concluded.

Tatchell has called on supporters of Monjeza and Chimbalanga to write to them in prison and to donate to their defense fund, since they have no assets of their own.

According to Tatchell, letters can be addressed to:

Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza, Prisoners, Chichiri Prison,
P.O. Box 30117, Chichiri, Blantyre 3, Malawi.
Donations can be sent to OutRage!, Tatchell's organization in Britain:

OutRage!, P.O. Box 17816, London SW14 8WT.
Enclose a note giving your name and address and stating that your donation is for the Malawi Defense campaign.

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