A man has been arrested for putting up posters championing gay rights, police said Tuesday, adding they were searching for other Malawians they believe are working with foreigners in the campaign.
There is debate over gay rights in this conservative country, sparked by the trial of a gay couple charged with unnatural acts and gross indecency, felonies for which they could be imprisoned for up to 14 years.
In an interview Tuesday, police spokesman Dave Chingwalu said the man arrested Saturday will be charged with conduct likely to cause a breach of peace, a misdemeanor that could be punished with a fine of up to 5,000 kwacha (about $35) or up to three months in jail.
Chingwalu said Peter Sawali, who was jailed pending further investigations, was found with stacks of expertly and expensively printed posters displaying such messages as: "gay rights are human rights!"
"We are still investigating because we believe there is a chain of people who were working with Mr. Sawali," Chingwalu said.
"We cannot rule out international sponsors because of the quality and the quantity of the posters," he said. "They might even have been produced outside."
Malawi's government has been criticized by international groups for the prosecution of Steven Monjeza, 26, and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, 20, jailed since their arrest Dec. 27, the day they celebrated their engagement with a party that drew crowds of curious onlookers in this conservative southern African country. Hearings in the trial also have attracted crowds. The next hearing in their case is Friday.
A group of Malawian human rights activists recently formed the Center for the Development of People to fight for the rights of homosexuals and other minorities. The group says studies show that because of homophobic legislation, gays and lesbians are driven underground making them hard to reach with information that could protect them from AIDS.
Another group, Broad Coalition, has distributed leaflets, posters and pictures promoting gay rights - but keeps the names of its members secret.
Mauya Msuku, the couple's lawyer, said the laws under which Monjeza and Chimbalanga were charged were archaic and unconstitutional.
"The penal code criminalizes homosexuality or same-sex marriages but under the Bill of Rights in the new Constitution it is clearly stated that no one should be discriminated against on the basis of - among other things - sexual orientation," he said.
Msuku has asked the country's chief justice for a constitutional review. Malawi's government has been unapologetic.
In Africa, only South Africa has legalized same-sex marriage, and in South Africa the gap between the liberal constitution and societal attitudes can be wide. Uganda will soon debate a proposed law that would impose the death penalty on some gays, though Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has told colleagues he believes the bill is too harsh and a Cabinet minister has called - so far unsuccessfully - for the bill to be scrapped.