A trial involving Malawi’s first married gay couple was adjourned today after one of the accused collapsed in court and was subjected to homophobic abuse from the public gallery.
Tiwonge Chimbalanga, who has spent more than a week in one of the country’s most congested prisons, vomited and stumbled onto the dusty court floor just before the case was due to start.
As he lay on the ground he was jeered by members of the public who had crowded in to watch what has become a cause célèbre and a test case for gay rights in the African nation.
“Auntie Tiwo ali ndi mimba” — or "Auntie Tiwo is pregnant" — people said.
With no one to assist him, Mr Chimbalanga, 20, dressed with a traditional dotted red and yellow striped wrapper around his waist and a red top, finally managed to stand and was allowed to leave to clean himself up.
A few minutes later he re-emerged with a mop and a pail to clean the vomit from the court floor — a chore that women in Africa typically have to perform even when they are sick.
Mr Chimbalanga and his partner Steve Monjeza, 26, have been charged with unnatural practices between men and gross public indecency because they were “married” in a gay civil ceremony.
Nyakwawa Usiwausiwa, chief resident magistrate at the court in Blantyre, ordered that Mr Chimbalanga be taken to hospital for treatment. His lawyers told the packed court that he has severe malaria and needed more time to rest before the case could resume. It was adjourned until January 25.
In the past two weeks there has been growing animosity in Malawi towards the couple. A judge last week denied them bail for their own protection.
Lawyers for the couple on Tuesday this week filed papers for the case to go to the country’s chief justice for a constitutional review. They want the chief justice to adjudicate on whether laws under which they have been charged are consistent with the country’s constitution.
“We want the Chief Justice to empanel the three judges to hear the case ... our argument is that the penal code under which our clients were charged is unconstitutional as it is against the spirit of the constitution,” argued Mauya Msuku, one of the couple’s legal team.
The two men have undergone what rights groups have described as inhumane medical tests to prove whether the two have had intercourse and whether they are mentally stable.
Homosexuality is a criminal offence in the conservative southern African nation and carries a maximum sentence of 14 years.