June 1, 2010
AIDS advocates applauded the decision by Malawi's president to pardon a gay couple sentenced to 14 years of hard labor for sodomy. The men were arrested in December following widespread local media accounts of their public same-sex marriage. President Bingu wa Mutharika's pardon of Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga came Saturday during a visit by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
"I have decided that with effect from today, they are pardoned and they will be released," said Mutharika, sitting beside Ki-moon. "Not because I condone what they have done, but for humanitarian reasons."
In January, Malawi's Constitutional Court refused to hear the couple's appeal to have their case thrown out. The pardon represents a "step forward towards recognizing the rights of minorities," said Mauya Msuku, the couple's attorney. "We still maintain that the two were charged and jailed based on the penal code which is archaic and unconstitutional."
AIDS activists have been concerned that the public stigma and prosecution of gays could force others underground, hurting disease-fighting efforts.
"This is a victory for the voiceless and for people on the margins of society," said Michel Sidibe, executive director of UNAIDS.
"We applaud this decision," said Michel Kazatchkine, executive director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria. "It is particularly important that it comes in Malawi, a country so dedicated to the AIDS response."
Ban lauded the president's decision in a speech before Malawi's parliament, in which he called on the legislators to change the sodomy laws. Though foreign diplomats and donors in the gallery applauded, the lawmakers were silent. Of Africa's 53 countries, 38 criminalize consensual gay sex, including some that classify it a capital offense, according to Human Rights Watch.