BLANTYRE, Malawi — Malawi's president on Saturday pardoned a gay couple who had been sentenced to 14 years in prison and ordered their release but insisted that homosexuality was still illegal in his conservative southern African nation.
President Bingu wa Mutharika announced the pardon on "humanitarian grounds only" during a press conference with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in Lilongwe, the capital.
"These boys committed a crime against our culture, against our religion, and against our laws," Mutharika said. "However, as head of state, I hereby pardon them and therefore order their immediate release without any conditions."
But he added, "We don't condone marriages of this nature. It's unheard of in Malawi and it's illegal."
Malawi had faced international condemnation for the conviction and harsh sentencing of Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza, who were arrested in December, a day after celebrating their engagement.
After the pardon, activists were searching for a safe house for the couple, fearing they could be attacked upon release.
Ban praised Mutharika's decision but said "laws that criminalize sexuality should be repealed."
In Washington, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs also praised the move, urging an end to "the persecution and criminalization" of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Earlier this week, the top U.N. AIDS official and the head of an international donor organization met with Mutharika and expressed concern that criminalizing homosexuality would keep a vulnerable group from seeking AIDS treatment.
Joseph Amon of Human Rights Watch said the president was responding to the international outcry.
"I hope that other leaders of African countries with anti-gay laws see that this is just not acceptable in the international community," Amon told The Associated Press by telephone from New York.
Malawi is among 37 African countries with anti-gay laws.
In Senegal, police have rounded up men suspected of being homosexual and beaten them, and a mob last year pulled the corpse of a gay man from his grave, spat on it and dumped it at the home of his elderly parents.
In Zimbabwe this month, two employees of a gay organization spent six days in jail on allegations of possessing indecent material and insulting President Robert Mugabe, an outspoken critic of homosexuality.
In Uganda, a proposed law would impose the death penalty for some gays.
Even in South Africa, the only African country that recognizes gay rights, lesbians have been gang-raped.
In Malawi, a judge convicted and sentenced Chimbalanga and Monjeza earlier this month on charges of unnatural acts and gross indecency under colonial-era laws. Crowds of Malawians had heckled the two during court hearings, with some saying that 14 years at hard labor – the harshest possible sentence – was not long enough.
Undule Mwakasungure, a gay rights activist in Malawi, told The AP on Saturday that he was concerned about the men's safety and was working with other activists to find a safe house for them or help them temporarily leave the country.
"There is homophobic sentiment. I think they might be harmed," Mwakasungure said.
Edi Phiri, who fled from Malawi to Britain five years ago after being beaten because he was gay, said the two might need to seek asylum outside of Malawi.
"They will be out of prison, but what will happen next?" Phiri said. "The community will see them as outcasts. I don't think they will be safe in Malawi."
Maxwell Manda said his brother-in-law Chimbalanga was pleased by the ruling and told the AP earlier that Chimbalanga wanted to leave Malawi upon his release.
"He has been down all week because he was separated from his partner. He is happy now," Manda said.
Chimbalanga had been held at a Blantyre prison, while Monjeza was sent to an institution 50 miles (90 kilometers) away. Prison officials said the separation was a security measure.
The activists hoped the presidential pardon would help their efforts to overturn Malawi's anti-gay laws and attitudes.
"The public needs to appreciate that the world is changing," Mwakasungure said. "It won't be easy ... we're not talking about changing the law today or tomorrow. But we have to start the process."
Even though the pardon was immediate, a prison spokesman told The AP they had not received notification to release the two men by Saturday afternoon.
Associated Press writer Donna Bryson contributed to this report from Johannesburg.