Officials in Malawi released Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga from jail late Saturday, The New York Times reports. Monjeza, 26, and Chimbalanga, 33, had been in jail since December, when they engaged in a same-sex commitment ceremony in Blantyre.
Their release comes after Saturday's earlier announcement by Malawi President Bingu wa Mutharika, that he was pardoning the couple.
“These boys committed a crime against our culture, our religion, and our laws,” Mutharika said after meeting with U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon, who was in Malawi to lobby for the men’s release. “However, as the head of state I hereby pardon them and therefore ask for their immediate release with no conditions."
The Times reports that the police escorted Chimbalanga, who says she is a transgender woman, back to her home village for a reunion with family. She plans to return to Blantyre on Sunday.
“I’ve been under so much emotional stress that I need to find somewhere to rest,” Chimbalanga said to the Times, speaking by cell phone through an interpreter. “I still want to marry Steven. But I don’t know what he’s thinking any more. We’ve been through so much.”
Chimbalanga added, “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.”
She and Monjeza were sentenced to 14 years in prison last week on charges of gross indecency and unnatural acts. Their arrest, imprisonment, and sentencing was greeted by protests worldwide.
According to a member of the U.N. delegation who spoke to the Times but asked to remain anonymous, “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.
Upon hearing of the pardon, the White House released the following statement: "The White House is pleased to learn of President Bingu wa Mutharika's pardon of Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza. These individuals were not criminals and their struggle is not unique. We must all recommit ourselves to ending the persecution and criminalization of sexual orientation and gender identity. We hope that President Mutharika's pardon marks the beginning of a new dialogue which reflects the country's history of tolerance and a new day for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights in Malawi and around the globe."