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African and British human rights campaigners rallied outside the Commonwealth's head quarters in London on Monday 22 March. They were protesting against the prosecution and imprisonment of the Malawian same-sex couple, Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, on charges of homosexuality, and against the Commonwealth's failure to condemn their arrest and detention in Chichiri prison.
See photos of the Malawi protest here:
Photos by Brett Lock of OutRage!
The keynote speaker at the protest was Edi Phiri, a gay Malawian who fled his country after he was badly beaten and had threats to kill him.
He said: "I urge my President and government to intervene to release Steven and Tiwonge. These two men don't deserve the way they are suffering in jail.
"The delay in the trial and the postponed verdict is a sign that the government and judiciary are split. Some officials want to convict and others don't. They keep on putting off the verdict. It is unfair to treat Steven and Tiwonge like this.
"International solidarity protests are really important to make sure these men get their freedom.
"Malawi's anti-gay laws are not African. They were imposed by the British colonisers nearly two centuries ago," said Mr Phiri.
Similar concerns were echoed by protest coordinator, Peter Tatchell, of the London-based lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) human rights group OutRage!:
"The judge has refused Tiwonge and Steven bail. Imprisoning them for three months without a verdict is an abuse of law and a violation of their right to a swift and fair trial. These men are innocent until proven guilty. So why are they in prison?" he queried.
"Tiwonge and Steven love each other and have harmed no one. But they could be jailed for up to 14 years.
"This protest was organised in response to an appeal for help from the jailed men.
From their prison cell in Malawi, Steven and Tiwonge sent a message to me in London, urging international pressure to secure their release.
"Tiwonge and Steven have been arrested, prosecuted and held in jail solely because of their sexual orientation. We want them released, all charges dropped and the repeal of Malawi's anti-homosexuality laws. These laws violate the equality and non-discrimination provisions of Article 20 of the Malawian Constitution and Articles 2, 3 and 4 and the African Charter of Human and People's Rights, which Malawi has signed and pledged to uphold," added Mr Tatchell.
Monday's demonstration was jointly sponsored by OutRage!, Black Gay Men's Advisory Group, Gay Activists Alliance International, Red Room, Rukus! Foundation and an informal coalition of black and African LGBT activists in London.
The rally was co-compared by Dennis Hambridge and Davis Mac-Iyalla, a gay Nigerian activist, both of Gay Activists Alliance International.
Other speakers were leading black and African LGBT campaigners, including the Nigerian gay pastor, Rev Rowland Jide Macaulay, Dennis Carney of the Black Gay Men's Advisory Group, Godwyns Onwuchekwa from Nigeria and Skye Chirape from Zimbabwe.
The protest is the latest development in the international solidarity campaign to support Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga.
Already, 67 British MPs have signed a House of Commons Early Day Motion (EDM 564), which condemns the arrest and trial of Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga:
Amnesty International has adopted Steven and Tiwonge as "Prisoners of Conscience" and is campaigning for their release:
Amnesty regards the two men as the equivalent of political prisoners. The UK Director of Amnesty, Kate Allen, said:
"Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga have committed no criminal offence and we adopted them as prisoners of conscience...It is vital that as many people as possible join us in writing to the Malawi authorities calling on them to release the two men."
In a letter last week to the Malawian High Commissioner in London, Dr Francis Moto, Mr Tatchell wrote:
"We respect Malawi as an independent nation, and merely ask that the government and judiciary adhere to the equality and anti-discrimination clause of the Malawian Constitution, which the people of Malawi freely agreed as part of the transition from dictatorship to democracy."
Malawi is a member of the Commonwealth.
"The Commonwealth Secretary-General, Kamalesh Sharma, has failed to condemn the arrest and jailing of Steven and Tiwonge, even though equality and human rights are supposed to be key Commonwealth principles," added Mr Tatchell.
"His silence is collusion with homophobia. As far as we can see, Mr Sharma is failing to oppose the persecution of Steven and Tiwonge. He is doing nothing to defend LGBT human rights anywhere. He appears to not accept that gay rights are human rights.
"Of the 53 Commonwealth member states, over 40 still criminalise same-sex relations, mostly under anti-gay laws that were originally imposed by the British government in the nineteenth century, during the period of colonial rule.
"These homophobic colonialist laws, which were retained after independence, are wrecking the lives of LGBT people throughout the Commonwealth. They criminalise otherwise law-abiding citizens and contribute to a hostile social atmosphere which demonises LGBT people as unnatural, abnormal, inferior and criminal.
"It is outrageous that nearly all Commonwealth member states persecute same-sex partners, with penalties ranging up to life imprisonment for consenting sex between gay and bisexual adults in private. Even more outrageous, the Commonwealth is saying and doing nothing to defend its LGBT citizens," concluded Mr Tatchell.
Press Release: OutRage!
Main Photo: Courtesy of Brett Lock of OutRage!
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