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Churches force Malawi to backtrack on suspending anti-gay laws

Churches force Malawi to backtrack on suspending anti-gay laws

Malawi’s government has back-tracked today (8 November) on its decision to suspend anti-gay laws, after pressure and criticism from the country’s churches.

Justice minister Ralph Kasambara was reported by GSN on monday as saying the government would suspend laws and arrests pending a decision on whether to repeal laws banning homosexuality.

Malawi was lauded this week by many human rights group on  its anti-gay law moratorium, including Amnesty and Human Rights Watch. 

However, Kasambara said today that he had never made such statements and that laws carrying up to 14 years in prison for committing homosexual acts were still being enforced.

‘There was no such announcement and there was no discussion on same-sex marriage,’ he told the Daily Times.

Kasambara insisted ‘Nobody talked about suspension of any provision of the Penal Code.’

Justice ministry sources told Reuters that pressure from the Malawi Council of Churches, a group of 24 influential Protestant churches, and the Law Society had forced the U-turn.

‘Our stance has always been that this practice should be criminalised because it runs contrary to our Christian values’, said the Malawi Council of Churches’ Secretary General, Reverend Osborne Joda-Mbewe.

In addition the Malawi Law Society also slammed the suspension as ‘unconstitutional’, ‘illegal’ and an ‘insult’ to parliament. 

Interestingly, Kasambara did not refute print media reports that he talked about the said suspension at a minority rights debate organised by the Centre for Human Rights Rehabilitation (CHRR) and Centre for Development of People (CEDEP) in Lilongwe on Thursday last week.

Kasambara is reported as having said at that meeting that: ‘There is a moratorium on such laws, meaning that police will not arrest or prosecute anyone based on these laws. These laws will not be enforced until the time Parliament makes a decision’.

Section 153 of the Malawi constitution prohibits ‘unnatural offences’ (i.e. same-sex acts) and stipulates up to fourteen years of imprisonment for the offenders.

Another section, 156 concerning ‘public decency’ is also used against Malawi’s LGBT community.

In late December 2009, a trans woman and a man, Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza, were arrested after holding a traditional ‘engagement’ party.

They were found guilty for violating sections 153 and 156 of and sentenced for fourteen years with hard labor.

After an international outcry Malawi’s late president Bingu wa Mutharika pardoned the couple on 29 May 2010.

A recent report on the assessment of the country’s laws and policies commissioned by the office of the president and cabinet recommended decriminalisation of homosexuality as a way of ensuring effective fight against the spread of HIV.

This is the second time Malawi backtracks on the issue of gay rights.

The country’s president, Joyce Banda, previously pledged she would repeal her country’s anti-gay laws, but backed down after facing strong criticism from political opponents.

‘Anyone who has listened to the debate in Malawi realizes that Malawians are not ready to deal with that right now. I as a leader have no right to influence how people feel,’ she said, speaking in New York after addressing the United Nations General Assembly.