BLANTYRE — A gay couple was jailed for "gross indecency" in Malawi after the country's first same-sex public wedding ceremony over the weekend, as several African states were clamping down on homosexuality.
A police spokesman told AFP that Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza, the first Malawian gays to publicly wed in a symbolic ceremony on Saturday "will appear in court soon to answer charges of gross indecency."
Homosexuality is banned in the conservative southern African country where the public discussion of sex is still taboo.
Malawi's penal code outlaws homosexuality and sodomy, which is punishable by a maximum of 14 years in jail.
Countries such as Uganda, Senegal and Burundi have intensified their efforts to repress homosexuality in a continent where 38 out of 53 countries have criminalised consensual gay sex.
Hundreds of people attended Saturday's ceremony held at a guesthouse in Blantyre and spiced with traditional and hip-hop music. The couple wore traditional robes.
"I went there to see for myself a gay couple," Finiasi Chikaoneka, one of the hundreds of people who thronged the venue, told AFP.
"There were many people who were just curious about the whole affair because this was the first time that gays have come out openly," he added.
Monjeza told the crowd he and Chimbalanga had been living together for five months, having first met at church.
The Malawi law society, a grouping of some 150 lawyers in Malawi, has condemned the wedding, saying it was illegal and "against the order of nature."
The society's secretary, Mercy Mulele, was quoted by the Daily Times urging police action as the wedding was "against the laws of Malawi."
Gift Trapenze, who heads the centre for the Development of People (Cedep), which fights for gays, prostitutes and prisoners, defended the couple, saying "they were expressing their legal rights."
He said the wedding was aimed at "testing" Malawi laws which were silent on such matters.
"The two individuals were expressing their sexual orientation as human beings. The police should not interfere in this matter," he told AFP.
The government does however recognise the existence of gays in Malawi and often calls on them to come out so as to help in the fight against AIDS, which affects around 14 percent of the 13 million population.
Trapence said 21.4 percent of gays were infected with HIV. He said gays had been driven underground because of fear of the anti-gay culture and imprisonment.
The anti-homosexuality laws on the continent have sparked condemnation from local and international rights groups.
The Ugandan government drew worldwide condemnation for its proposed Anti-Homosexuality Bill that would punish homosexuality with life imprisonment, and threatens anybody who promotes homosexuality with jail.
In Senegal a group of 24 men were arrested on Christmas Eve for allegedly engaging in homosexual acts and holding an authorised party. They were released the following day but remain under investigation.
In April, Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza promulgated a bill that made homosexuality an offence punishable by up to two years in prison. Human rights groups have condemned the move, saying the government's treatment of gays and lesbians is worsening.