Malawi gay trial verdict is unjust and cruel

Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga are found guilty of homosexuality.

Today two men, Steven Monjeza, 26, and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, 20, were prosecuted in Malawi on charges of homosexuality.

The law under which they were convicted is a discriminatory law that applies only to same-sex relations. It is unconstitutional. Article 20 of Malawi's constitution guarantees equality and non-discrimination. The law in Malawi is not supposed to discriminate.

Malawi's anti-gay laws were not devised by Malawians. They were devised in London in the 19th century and imposed on the people of Malawi by British colonisers and their army of occupation. Before the British came and conquered Malawi, there were no laws against homosexuality. These laws are a foreign imposition. They are not African laws.

I expect both men will now appeal against the verdict and against any sentence that is handed down. Steven and Tiwonge's best hope is that a higher court will overturn this unjust, cruel verdict.

With so much hatred and violence in the world, it is bizarre that any court would criminalise two people for loving each other.

The magistrate was biased from outset. He refused the two men bail, which is very unusual in cases of non-violent offences. In Malawi, bail is normal. It is often granted to robbers and violent criminals. Denying Steven and Tiwonge bail was an act of vindictiveness.

I appeal to governments worldwide, especially the South African government, to condemn this harsh, bigoted judgment and to urge its reversal.

Prior to the verdict, Tiwonge and Steven issued a defiant message from their prison cell. It affirmed their love for each other and thanked their supporters in Malawi and worldwide.

Tiwonge said: "I love Steven so much. If people or the world cannot give me the chance and freedom to continue living with him as my lover, then I am better off to die here in prison. Freedom without him is useless and meaningless."

"We have come a long way and even if our family relatives are not happy, I will not and never stop loving Tiwonge," said Steven.

The two men's messages were relayed from inside Chichiri Prison in Blantyre, Malawi, to Peter Tatchell of the LGBT human rights group OutRage! in London, England.

Tiwonge and Steven stressed their gratitude for the support they have received from fellow Malawians and from people around the world:

"We are thankful for the people who have rallied behind us during this difficult time. We are grateful to the people who visit and support us, which really makes us feel to be members of a human family; otherwise we would feel condemned," said Tiwonge.

Steven added: "All the support is well appreciated. We are grateful to everybody who is doing this for us. May people please continue the commendable job . . . Prison life is very difficult."

Steven and Tiwonge are showing immense fortitude and courage. They declared their love in a society where many people -- not all -- are very intolerant and homophobic. This was a very brave thing to do. Although suffering in prison, they are unbowed. They continue to maintain their love and affirm their human right to be treated with dignity and respect.

They have taken a pioneering stand for the right to love. They love each other, have harmed no one and believe that love should not be a crime. It is nobody's business what they do in the privacy of their own home. There is no evidence that they have committed any crime under Malawian law. They should never have been put on trial. Even prior to their conviction, they had already spent nearly five months behind bars.

OutRage! is supporting Steven and Tiwonge. For the past four months, we have arranged extra food to supplement the men's meagre, poor-quality prison rations.

We pay tribute to the other people and organisations giving legal and medical assistance to the detained men. This is a huge help. Steven and Tiwonge have asked me to communicate their appreciation.

Sixty-seven 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.

For more information, visit petertatchell.net

Peter Tatchell is Director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation, which campaigns for human rights the UK and worldwide: www.PeterTatchellFoundation.org His personal biography can be viewed here: www.petertatchell.net/biography.htm

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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.