Malawi gay couple released after presidential pardon

Tiwonge Chimbalanga, right, and Steven Monjeza, middle, are led from court in Blantyre on 20 May 2010

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Two gay men jailed in Malawi but later pardoned by the country's President Bingu wa Mutharika have been released from prison, say reports.

Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga had been given 14-year jail terms for "gross indecency and unnatural acts" after celebrating their engagement.

They were pardoned during a visit by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

But a government minister told the BBC the men could be re-arrested if they continued their relationship.

The case sparked international condemnation and a debate about homosexuality in the country.

Monjeza, 26, and Chimbalanga, 20, were released from prison on Saturday evening, hours after Mr Mutharika announced their pardon.

Gift Trapence, director of the campaign group Centre for the Development of the People (Cedep) which had been supporting the couple, said they had been taken separately to their home villages.

"The prison authorities told them they had been given instruction from above that they should take them to their respective homes," he told the AFP news agency.

Mr Trapence said they had been "warmly welcomed by their respective relatives" when they arrived home.

'No change'

But Patricia Kaliati, Malawi's Minister of Gender and Children, said Monjeza and Chimbalanga's release did not mean they could continue their relationship.

"It doesn't mean that now they are free people, they can keep doing whatever you keep doing," she said.

Malawi map

Ms Kaliati said they could be rearrested if they "continue doing that".

The men's lawyer said they were unlikely to be treated in the same way if they were arrested again.

"The pardon only applies to the offence under which they were convicted. If, for example, they go back and the state is of the view that they have recommited the offence, the pardon will not apply," said Mauya Msuku.

Monjeza and Chimbalanga were arrested in December last year, a day after they celebrated their engagement and had been in custody ever since.

They were convicted of engaging in gay sex under a law dating back to colonial rule by Britain and sentenced to 14 years with hard labour.

Judge Nyakwawa Usiwa-Usiwa said their actions went "against the order of nature".

But on Saturday, Mr Mutharika said he was pardoning the pair on humanitarian grounds.

"In all aspects of reasoning, in all aspects of human understanding, these two gay boys were wrong - totally wrong," he said.

"However, now that they have been sentenced, I as the president of this country have the powers to pronounce on them and therefore, I have decided that with effect from today, they are pardoned and they will be released."

His comments came after a meeting with UN chief Mr Ban, who praised the decision as courageous.

But Ms Kaliati insisted that the president had not bowed to international pressure in releasing the men.

She said Malawi would not now reconsider its laws against homosexuality.

"We have our own rules and laws which we are following, and our own constitution. Our constitution is not the same as your constitution," she said in her BBC interview.

Many of Britain's former colonies have similar laws outlawing homosexuality - India overturned it last year.

In Uganda, MPs are debating whether to strengthen the laws to include the death penalty for some gay people - a move which has infuriated Western governments and human rights campaigners.

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