LILONGWE A Malawi gay couple was sentenced on Thursday to 14 years each in jail after being convicted on sodomy and indecency charges, and Washington swiftly condemned the court decision as "unconscionable."
The couple, Steven Monjeza, 26, and 20-year-old Tiwonge Chimbalanga, were arrested after they got engaged in a traditional ceremony in late December. They were tried and found guilty earlier this week in a trial viewed as a test case for gay rights in the southern African country.
"I sentence these two ... to a maximum sentence because I want us to stop Malawian sons and daughters from copying the same sex marriages which are un-Malawian and not in our culture and religious beliefs," Chief Resident Magistrate Nyakwawa Uisiwausiwa said.
"This is the first case of its kind in Malawi ... this is the worst case of its kind," he added.
Major donors to aid-dependent Malawi have condemned what they called the abuse of human rights in the southern African nation, particularly a crackdown on gay rights, and warned that abuses could affect budget support.
"The United States strongly condemns the conviction and harsh sentencing," Robert Gibbs, U.S. President Barack Obama's press secretary said in a statement.
"The criminalization of sexual orientation and gender identity is unconscionable, and this case mars the human rights record of Malawi," he said. "We urge Malawi and all countries to stop using sexual orientation or gender identity as the basis for arrest, detention, or execution."
Rights group Amnesty International on Tuesday called for the immediate and unconditional release of the couple, saying their human rights have been flagrantly violated.
Malawi gay activist Udule Mwakasungura said the sentence may dent the country's image.
"Malawi is a signatory to treaties that protect minority rights and this sentence is unfortunate and may affect our global standing on human rights," he said.
Homosexuality in Africa has become a contentious issue in recent months after a Ugandan lawmaker proposed a bill including the death penalty for some acts, the arrest of the Malawian couple, and a police raid on a gay wedding in Kenya earlier this year.
Dozens of people packed the court to hear the sentencing. Police closed roads around the building and a nearby bank was closed as more than a thousand people descended on the court.
Tiwonge was calm as the judge pronounced the sentence, which includes hard labor, but Monjeza was visibly shaking at the prospect of going to jail. Police whisked the two away in armed vehicles shortly after the sentencing.
Mauya Msuku, the couple's lawyer said he would appeal the ruling pending a consultation with his clients.
(Writing by Marius Bosch and Phumza Macanda, additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Editing by Philippa Fletcher)