A gay couple in Malawi sentenced to 14 years in prison for “unnatural acts” was pardoned on Saturday shortly after United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon met that country's President.

“These boys committed a crime against our culture, our religion and our laws,” said President Bingu wa Mutharika at a news conference in Lilongwe, the capital, before adding that he nevertheless was ordering the couple's unconditional release on “humanitarian grounds”.

The two men, Tiwonge Chimbalanga (33) and Steven Monjeza (26), were arrested on December 28, two days after holding an engagement party in Blantyre, the nation's largest city.

As a rule, gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people do not dare make any public show of affection in their deeply conservative country. The event made front-page headlines in a Malawian newspaper.On May 18, the couple was convicted of sodomy, and while the harsh sentence was generally welcomed by the Malawian public, it drew international rebuke. The nation, one of the poorest in Africa, is heavily dependent on foreign aid, and several donors suggested they might have to reconsider their generosity.

Pop stars issued their own condemnations. Madonna, who has adopted two children from Malawi, said the nation had taken “a giant step backward.” Elton John wrote an appeal to Mr. Mutharika, asking him to release the couple and “expunge Malawi's discriminatory laws against homosexuality”.

In announcing the pardon, the President emphasised that he was not condoning gay marriage. “It's unheard of in Malawi, and it's illegal,” he said. Mr. Mutharika, an economist and the chairman of the African Union, is often praised for recent improvements in Malawi's health and education systems. Mr. Ban arrived Saturday to begin a two-day visit.

“The Secretary-General told the President rather strongly that the current controversy was having a negative effect on Malawi's reputation and obscuring the progress it had made in other spheres,” said a member of the U.N. delegation who said he was not authorised to comment and could only speak anonymously.

Mr. Ban then addressed Parliament, informing legislators that their President had made a “courageous decision” to grant the pardon. The legislators responded with dreary silence while foreign diplomats in the gallery above cheered and applauded.

The Secretary-General further told the lawmakers, “It is unfortunate that laws that criminalise people on the basis of their sexual orientation should still exist in some countries.”

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs greeted news of the pardon with approval, declaring that “these individuals were not criminals and their struggle is not unique”.

Late Saturday, Mr. Chimbalanga, who has said he considers himself a woman in a man's body, and Mr. Monjeza were released from custody.

The police escorted Mr. Chimbalanga back to his home village in the remote hills of Thyolo District. He stayed for a reunion with family members, and planned to return to Blantyre early Sunday.

“I've been under so much emotional stress that I need to find somewhere to rest,” said Mr. Chimbalanga, speaking by cell phone through an interpreter. “I still want to marry Steven. But I don't know what he is thinking any more. We've been through so much.”

He said: “I think it is going to be hard to stay in Malawi. I am afraid of what people might do to us. We probably need to seek asylum in some other country. Is there a place for us? I don't know.” — New York Times News Service

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