Zambia under fire for anti-gay sentiment
Johannesburg - As a gay couple in Malawi began serving a 14-year jail term for conducting an open relationship, another southern African country came under fire Friday over its treatment of gays.
New York-based rights watchdog Human Rights Watch warned that recent homophobic statements by religious leaders and government authorities in Zambia, Malawi's neighbour to the west, was undermining that country's fight against the HIV/Aids pandemic.
In a letter to Zambian leaders dated May 17 and released to the media late on Thursday, HRW called on the government of President Rupiah Banda to condemn statements that could discourage gay men from using healthcare facilities, including HIV testing, and "erode their fundamental human rights".
The letter also called on Zambian lawmakers to decriminalise consenting homosexual conduct.
Homosexual acts are banned in Zambia, as is the case in Malawi and a number of other African countries.
On Thursday, a gay couple in Malawi received the maximum sentence of 14 years imprisonment with hard labour after being found guilty of engaging in acts "against the order of nature".
The case caused an international outcry and shone a light on the ongoing repression of gays across the continent.
In Zambia, at least two religious leaders have recently criticised donor countries for speaking out in defense of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender population.
HRW quoted Bishop JHK Banda, chairman of the National Aids Council, as describing the donors efforts as being "against the traditional values of the country".
Penalties for homosexual acts
Zambia's Anglican Council presiding bishop Robert Mumbi also recently described homosexuality as un-African - an oft-repeated refrain.
Elsewhere in the region, Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe has said gays were "lower than dogs and pigs" and refused to include gay rights in discussions on a new constitution.
And in the central African country of Uganda, a draft bill is before parliament that would increase penalties for homosexual acts to life in prison, or even the death penalty for some offenses.
HRW fears that homophobic statements will compromise efforts to prevent the spread of the deadly HIV virus in the gay community. HIV is mainly contracted through unprotected sex.
"Zambia has a strong track record on addressing HIV/Aids," Joseph Amon, Health and Human Rights director at Human Rights Watch said in the letter. "However, promoting intolerance and creating a climate of fear will only sabotage efforts to ensure access to HIV prevention and treatment by driving men underground," he said.
Zambia's anti-gay law, which dates to the British colonial era, violated the country's constitution, in that the charter guarantees the right to privacy and prohibits discrimination, HRW said.
The same argument has been made by human rights groups in Malawi.