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A judge convicted a gay couple Tuesday of charges that could send them to jail for more than a decade following an engagement celebration, a ruling activists fear could send others into hiding and hamper the fight against AIDS.
Malawi's government has been defiant in the face of international criticism over the couple's prosecution since they were arrested in December.
Tiwonge Chimbalanga, a 20-year-old hotel janitor, and his unemployed partner Steven Monjeza, 26, were arrested the day after they celebrated their engagement with a party at the hotel where Chimbalanga worked — an apparent first in Malawi.
Undule Mwakasungula, a gay rights activist in Malawi, said the couple's decision to declare their relationship with an engagement ceremony appears to have been personal, not political.
Others have been prosecuted under the law but this case was different because the two men were open about their homosexuality, Mwakasungula said.
The couple were convicted of unnatural acts and gross indecency under laws dating from the colonial era. Blantyre Chief Resident Magistrate Nyakwawa Usiwa said the sentencing will take place on Thursday and they could be imprisoned for up to 14 years.
The verdict is "extremely disturbing," said Michaela Clayton of the Namibia-based AIDS & Rights Alliance for Southern Africa, saying it could encourage anti-gay sentiment in the region as well as set back the fight against AIDS.
Gay people forced underground in Africa are unlikely to seek counseling and treatment for AIDS, activists say. In Malawi, nearly 1 million people — an estimated 12 percent of the population — are living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
Homosexuality is illegal in at least 37 countries in Africa including Malawi. In Uganda, lawmakers are considering a bill that could sentence homosexuals to life in prison and includes capital punishment for "repeat offenders." Even in South Africa, the only African country that recognizes gay rights, gangs have raped lesbians.
Mwakasungula said the two Malawian men were concerned that if they were released, they could be attacked by Malawians who have threatened them. But given the laws and the climate in Malawi, he said a guilty verdict had been expected.
The courtroom was packed Tuesday, and hundreds more people waited outside for a glimpse of the couple, who did not speak. Chimbalanga exchanged hi-five greetings with some in the crowd as he was escorted from the courthouse Tuesday. Monjeza, who has been tearful at previous hearings, was expressionless.
Priti Patel of the Southern African Litigation Centre, an independent rights group, said the couple could appeal on the grounds that the laws under which they were prosecuted violate the country's 1994 constitution. But an earlier attempt by their lawyer to have the case thrown out on those grounds was rejected.
The government, backed by Malawi church leaders, says it is clear the two men broke the law. Religious officials say homosexuality is "sinful" and the West should not be allowed to use its financial power to force Malawi to accept homosexuality. Malawi relies on donors for 40 percent of its development budget.
Edi Phiri, who fled Malawi for Britain five years ago after being beaten because he was gay, said he was shocked by Tuesday's verdict.
"It's very, very pathetic," he said. "I don't know how I can describe how disappointed I am."
Associated Press Writer Donna Bryson in Johannesburg contributed to this report.
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