World News

South Africa's Zuma condemns arrest of gays in Malawi

South Africa's President Jacob Zuma addresses participants at the 20th World Economic Forum on Africa in Tanzania's commercial capital Dar es Salaam, May 7, 2010. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - South Africa’s leader, in a rare rebuke of a fellow African nation, Thursday condemned Malawi’s sentencing of a gay couple to 14 years in jail but said he would not press the country to change its laws.

The statement from South African President Jacob Zuma, a Zulu traditionalist, was believed to be the strongest from an African head of state against the anti-gay clampdown in Malawi.

A Malawi court last week sentenced a gay couple to 14 years each in jail for sodomy and indecency charges, a decision that human rights groups condemned and the United States called “unconscionable.”

The case has highlighted discrimination against homosexuals in Africa, the world’s poorest continent. Kenyan police in February halted a gay wedding and arrested several suspected homosexuals.

“We have condemned the action taken to arrest people in terms of our constitution,” Zuma said about the arrests in Malawi, in response to questions in parliament.

While homosexuality is illegal in most of Africa’s 53 nations, including Malawi and Kenya, South Africa in 2006 passed laws recognizing same-sex marriage.

“We need to persuade, we need to make people understand, we need to move with them. We have never adopted a confrontational stance on matters,” said Zuma, a polygamist with five wives and 19 children, some with women other than his wives.

Homosexuality in Africa has become a contentious issue in recent months, with the arrest in Malawi, the raid in Kenya and after an Ugandan lawmaker proposed a bill including the death penalty for some offences.

Reporting by Wendell Roelf; Editing by Mark Heinrich