BLANTYRE (AFP) – Two of the world's leading AIDS campaigners voiced concern on Wednesday that the jailing of a gay couple in Malawi could hurt the fight against the disease by forcing gay men underground.

Last week a court sentenced Steven Monjeza, 26, and his 20-year-old partner Tiwonge Chimbalanga to 14 years hard labour for sodomy, after they held the country's first known same-sex wedding.

UNAIDS boss Michel Sidibe and the head of the Global Fund against AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, Michel Kazatchkine said they discussed the case during talks Tuesday with Malawi's president.

"Criminalising sexual behaviour drives people who engage in same-sex relations underground and hampers HIV-related programmes aimed at addressing their needs," said Kazatchkine in a statement.

"Evidence from several countries in Africa shows a significant number of new HIV infections occurring among sex workers, people who use drugs and men who have sex with men," Sidibe said.

"Opening a societal dialogue on these sensitive and critical issues is the only way to guarantee access to health services and restore dignity to all," he added.

During the course of the trial, Malawi's President Bingu wa Mutharika had called homosexuality "evil and very bad before the eyes of God".

But he told Sidibe and Kazatchkine that he was "confident the cultural, religious and legal dimensions of the debate generated around this case will lead to a positive outcome," the statement said.

The court's decision to hand the couple the maximum sentence sparked an outcry among human rights groups, but no African leader has publicly commented on the case.