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Gay Malawi couple separated in prison

By Melissa Gray, CNN
  • Malawi authorities split up gay couple jailed last week, activists say
  • Unclear why Steven Mojenza was moved to different facility
  • Couple was sentenced last week after getting engaged

(CNN) -- One of two gay men jailed in Malawi after they got engaged has been transferred to another prison, a human rights campaigner and gay rights activist said Wednesday.

It was not clear why Steven Mojenza was moved from Chichiri prison, where he had been serving time with his partner, Tiwonge Chimbalanga. The pair was sentenced last week to 14 years in prison after being found guilty of gross indecency and unnatural acts.

Though in separate cells at Chichiri, the men were able to see each other briefly "from time to time," said Peter Tatchell, a London-based gay rights activist who has been advocating for the men.

Gift Trapence, executive director of the Malawi-based human rights group Center for the Development of People, visited Chimbalanga in prison Wednesday and said Mojenza was not the only prisoner who was moved to another facility.

Trapence said he planned to visit Mojenza at the new prison Thursday and would learn more then.

Tatchell expressed fears for Mojenza's mental and physical health.

No appeal has been scheduled, Trapence said.

"The lawyers are going to submit the papers either this week or next week," he told CNN from Malawi. "The court is going to give the dates for the appeal, so we can't speculate right now because the court has not given the date."

Lawyers for the men are hopeful the 14-year sentence will either be reduced or thrown out on appeal, Trapence said.

The two men, both in their 20s, were arrested in December at their home in Blantyre, Malawi, for professing their love in a traditional engagement ceremony. They were rounded up after news reports surfaced, charged under colonial-era sodomy laws and detained at Chichiri prison without bail.

The arrests received some popular support in the conservative southern African nation, but sparked condemnation by gay-rights activists. Human-rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have called for the couple's release.

Homosexuality is illegal in Malawi, as it is in most African nations, and government officials have said they are simply upholding the law. Activists in Malawi, however, say they are violating the country's constitution, which outlaws discrimination.

The Malawi Law Society said the prosecution of the two men was driven by prejudice, not jurisprudence.

Anthony Kamanga, Malawi's solicitor general and secretary for justice and constitutional affairs, said the law does not conflict with the constitution and has denied the charge of prejudice.