BLANTYRE, Malawi – Malawi's president on Saturday pardoned and ordered the release of a gay couple sentenced to 14 years in prison, but said that homosexuality remains illegal in this conservative southern African nation.
Activists were searching for a safe house for the couple, fearing they could be attacked upon release.
Malawi has faced international condemnation for the conviction and harsh sentencing of Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza. announced the pardon, saying it was on "humanitarian grounds only," during a press conference with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in Lilongwe, the capital.
Earlier in the week, the top U.N. AIDS official and the head of an international donor organization met Mutharika in Malawi and expressed concern that criminalizing homosexuality would keep a vulnerable group from seeking HIV/AIDS counseling and treatment.
Joseph Amon of Human Rights Watch said the president was no doubt responding to the international outcry over the case.
"I hope that other leaders of African countries with anti-gay laws see that this is just not acceptable in the international community," Amon told The Associated Press by telephone from New York.
Malawi is among 37 African countries with anti-gay laws.
In Senegal police have rounded up men suspected of being homosexual and beaten them, and a mob last year pulled the corpse of a gay man from his grave, spat on it and dumped it at the home of his elderly parents.
In Zimbabwe this month, two employees of a gay organization spent six days in jail on allegations of possessing indecent material and displaying a placard seen as insulting to President Robert Mugabe, an outspoken critic of homosexuality.
In Uganda, a proposed law would impose the death penalty for some gays.
Even in South Africa, the only country that recognizes gay rights, lesbians have been gang-raped.
In Malawi, a judge convicted and sentenced Chimbalanga and Monjeza earlier this month on charges of unnatural acts and gross indecency, both colonial-era laws. They were arrested in December, a day after they celebrated their engagement.
Crowds of Malawians had heckled the two during court hearings, with some saying after they were sentenced to 14 years at hard labor — the harshest possible sentence — that they should be imprisoned longer.
Undule Mwakasungure, a gay rights activist in Malawi, told The AP Saturday he was concerned about the couple's safety, and working with other activists to find a safe house for them and possible arrange for them to leave the country at least temporarily.
"There is homophobic sentiment. I think they might be harmed," Mwakasungure said.
Edi Phiri, who fled Malawi for Britain five years ago after being beaten because he was gay, said the two might need to seek asylum outside of Malawi.
"They will be out of prison, but what will happen next?" Phiri said. "The community will see them as outcasts. I don't think they will be safe in Malawi."
A cousin of Chimbalanga, Maxwell Manda, told The AP earlier in the week that Chimbalanga wanted to leave Malawi upon his release.
Mwakasungure and Phiri said the pardon was welcome and could fuel campaigns to overturn Malawi's anti-gay legislation and try to change attitudes.
"The public needs to appreciate that the world is changing," Mwakasungure said. "It won't be easy. But I think that as time goes, people will start to appreciate. We're not talking about changing the law today or tomorrow. But we have to start the process."
Mutharika's comments Saturday underlined the challenge activists face.
"These boys committed a crime against our culture, against our religion, and against our laws," Mutharika said. "However, as head of state, I hereby pardon them and therefore order their immediate release without any conditions."
But he added, "We don't condone marriages of this nature. It's unheard of in Malawi and it's illegal."
Ban praised Mutharika's decision but said, "It is unfortunate that laws criminalize people based on sexuality. Laws that criminalize sexuality should be repealed."
While the order was immediate, a prison spokesman told The AP they had not received notification to release the two men by Saturday afternoon.
Mwakasungure, the activist, said he hoped the release would be delayed until Monday or Tuesday, to give him time to prepare a safe house.
Associated Press writer Donna Bryson contributed to this report from Johannesburg.