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Gay couple convicted in Malawi could face 14 years in jail

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The photograph says it all. Two young men handcuffed in the back of a pickup truck, surrounded by smiling young men, who are visibly taunting them.

The trial of two openly gay Malawian men – convicted today of “gross indecency” and “unnatural acts” under a British-colonial era law – brought negative international attention to the small impoverished southern African country, until now, better known for being the birthplace of Madonna’s two most-recently adopted children.

The conviction of Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga shows a growing divide between human rights groups that fight for more tolerance of homosexuals and conservative Christian churches that combine with traditional values to leave little room for gays.

Like Ugandan Christians who have pushed through an anti-gay bill that originally would have executed homosexuals accused of sex with a minor, and like Kenyan Christian churches that seek to derail a new Constitution because of its supposed encouragement of abortion, Malawian society continues to ban homosexuality on legal, moral, and cultural grounds.

Fourteen years in prison?

Mr. Monjez and Mr. Chimbalanga were arrested in Dec. 2009 after holding a public engagement ceremony at their home.

Their sentencing is expected Thursday, and they could each face 14 years in prison.

In announcing the conviction today, Judge Nyakwawa Usiwa-Usiwa said the couple’s admission of having gay sex was “against the order of nature.”

A taboo across Africa

For African countries with vast problems such as illiteracy, poverty, and war, it might seem odd to devote resources to a personal matter such as sexual behavior. But some social scientists say it is precisely because many African countries have few resources that religious beliefs – and the moral values they promote – have become so important in society. They bring certainty to an uncertain world.

Across Africa, 37 countries ban homosexuality outright. Anti-gay laws are often popular, as was shown in the debate over anti-gay legislation in Uganda late last year.

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The legislation has found strong support from US-based conservative churches, some of whom have specifically seceded from more tolerant European or American dioceses to join more doctrinaire African ones.

But an anti-homosexual thread has become common throughout modern Africa, and some social scientists say opposition to homosexuality springs from the conservatism of rural societies – where large families are seen both as the moral norm and a sign of prosperity.

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