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A gay couple has been jailed and convicted over what the judge deemed inappropriate and unnatural behavior.

According to reports, Malawian citizens Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza, who are openly gay men, were arrested after celebrating their engagement with a party at a hotel where Chimbalanga worked.

In court, the judge deemed the act of homosexuality to be inappropriate and convicted the couple for unnatural acts and gross indecency under laws dating from the colonial era. Blantyre Chief Resident Magistrate Nyakwawa Usiwa said the sentencing will take place on Thursday and they could be imprisoned for up to 14 years.

Edi Phiri, a gay man who fled Malawi for Britain five years ago after being beaten because of his sexuality, said he was shocked by Tuesday’s verdict.

“It’s very, very pathetic,” he said. “I don’t know how I can describe how disappointed I am.”

For the gay men and lesbians that remain, many feel that the verdict will cause them to go into hiding thus making the tracking of AIDS and HIV harder, because gay people forced underground in Africa are unlikely to seek counseling and treatment for AIDS, activists say. In Malawi, nearly 1 million people – an estimated 12 percent of the population – are living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Although facing very harsh criticism from neighboring European countries, the Malawian government, backed by church leaders, says it is clear the two men broke the law.

Religious officials say homosexuality is “sinful” and the West should not be allowed to use its financial power to force Malawi to accept homosexuality. Malawi relies on donors for 40 percent of its development budget.

At the verdict reading, the attorney for the two gentlemen, Priti Patel of the Southern African Litigation Centre, said the couple could appeal on the grounds that the laws under which they were prosecuted violate the country’s 1994 constitution; although an earlier attempt by their lawyer to have the case thrown out on those grounds was rejected.

Homosexuality is illegal in at least 37 countries in Africa including Malawi. In Uganda, lawmakers are considering a bill that could sentence homosexuals to life in prison and includes capital punishment for “repeat offenders.” Even in South Africa, the only African country that recognizes gay rights, gangs have raped lesbians.