Malawi's high court [official website] began hearing a petition on Monday by human rights group Centre for the Development of People (CEDEP) [advocacy website] challenging the jail sentences of three convicted gays and seeking to overturn laws that criminalize homosexuality in the country. The three men, Amon Champyuni, Mathew Bello and Mussa Chiwisi were convicted [AFP report] by a magistrate court in 2011 for the offenses of "unnatural acts" and "buggery" and were given sentences ranging from six to 12 years of hard labor. The hearings have been set for March 21. In Malawi, homosexual offenses by men are punishable by jail sentences up to 14 years, and similar offenses by women are subject to sentences up to five years. In addition to this challenge, the UNAIDS [official website] task force along with local human rights groups and the Malawi Law Society are also challenging [Reuters report] the constitutionality of the nation's anti-homosexual laws in a hearing scheduled for March 17. Such laws have reportedly caused strain in the relationship between the Malawi government and international donors, whose aid is heavily relied upon.
Anti-homosexual laws have become common in African nations, causing much internal and international contention between such countries, human rights groups, aid organizations and the international community. About 37 African nations currently have [CGE backgrounder] some form of law criminalizing homosexuality. Last week the president of Nigeria signed [JURIST report] into law a bill banning same-sex marriages and criminalizing homosexual associations, meetings and societies by subjecting them to punishment of up to fourteen years in prison. The new law caused a significant amount of international outcry, and was referred [JURIST report] to as "draconian" by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Malawi's relationship with anti-gay laws has been anything but constant. In November 2012 the nation issued [JURIST report] a moratorium suspending the nation's anti-gay laws, only to reverse [JURIST report] that position just three days later amid an outcry of protest from the Christian community. Malawi President Joyce Banda vowed [JURIST report] to decriminalize homosexuality in her first address to the nation in May 2012, a promise that has yet to be kept. The current legal challenge to Malawi's anti-gay laws is also not a novel one, in 2011 the Malawi Law Commission was ordered [JURIST report] to review several anti-gay laws, which ultimately proved unsuccessful.