A Malawian couple who had been sentenced to 14 years of hard labor for being gay was released Saturday after a presidential pardon. A court in Malawi found Steven Mojenza, 26, and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, 20, guilty of “unnatural acts” and “gross indecency” in May 2010. The couple was first arrested at their home in December 2009, a day after publicly celebrating their engagement at a hotel. Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika reportedly issued the pardon on “humanitarian grounds only,” reported the Associated Press, and restated that homosexuality remains illegal in Malawi.
Malawi’s Minister of Gender and Children Patricia Kaliati told the BBC that “it doesn’t mean that now they are free people, they can keep doing whatever [they were] doing.” If the couple resumes their relationship, they could be rearrested. The couple’s lawyer, Mauya Msuku, further explained to the BBC, “the pardon only applies to the offence under which they were convicted. If, for example, they go back [to prison] and the state is of the view that they have recommitted the offence, the pardon will not apply.” Since their release from prison, several news reports have indicated that the pair are in hiding or that one of the two is missing.
The US State Department and many others globally had condemned the couple’s sentence. The State Department called the sentence “a deeply troubling violation of human rights” and vowed “to stand against any efforts to marginalize, criminalize, and penalize members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans-gender community worldwide.”
Homosexuality is currently illegal in 37 African countries and legal only in South Africa. Currently in Uganda, the Parliament is still considering legislation that, in its original form, would have imposed life imprisonment as the minimum sentence for being gay and would have allowed for the death penalty.