Gay Malawi Couple Could Get 14 Years in Jail for Engagement

Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga (The National)

BLANTYRE, Malawi (CBS/AP) Last December, Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, a Malawi gay couple, celebrated their engagement with a party that drew crowds of curious, jeering onlookers.

But they've been in jail ever since and were convicted on Tuesday in a Malawi court of unnatural acts and gross indecency.

Monjeza, 26, and Chimbalanga, 20, could be imprisoned for up to 14 years. They will be sentenced Thursday.

The trial drew worldwide condemnation of the southern African country's colonial-era laws on homosexuality.

Hearings in the trial also have drawn Malawians who have ridiculed the couple, an indication of views on homosexuality in this traditional society - and elsewhere in Africa.

Homosexuality is illegal in at least 37 countries on the continent. In Uganda, lawmakers are considering a bill that would sentence homosexuals to life in prison and include capital punishment for "repeat offenders." Even in South Africa, the only African country that recognizes gay rights, gangs have carried out so-called "corrective" rapes on lesbians.

Malawi's government has been defiant in the face of international criticism over the prosecution of Monjeza and Chimbalanga. Months before the verdict, Information Minister Leckford Mwanza Thoto said it was clear the two had broken the law.

Malawi church leaders have backed the government, saying homosexuality is "sinful" and the West should not be allowed to use its financial power to force Malawi to accept homosexuality. Malawi relies on donors for 40 percent of its development budget.

The controversy, though, has emboldened some human rights activists in Malawi. The Center for the Development of People was recently formed to fight for the rights of homosexuals and other minorities.