The President Of This African Country "Wants Gay Rights Protected"

The debate now unfolding in Malawi may revive hope that there's an opening for reform of anti-LGBT laws in the African country.

President Peter Mutharika of Malawi "wants gay rights protected," his press secretary said on Thursday during an interview with a local radio station. The statement came shortly after the Malawian government announced it would not enforce the southeastern African country's sodomy law.

The press secretary, Gerald Viola, said in a phone interview with BuzzFeed News that he made the statement in response to a question as to whether the president agreed with an MP who wrote on Facebook that "the best way to deal with this problem [of homosexuality] is to KILL them." Viola said the president believed the Malawian people should vote on whether or not to repeal the country's colonial-era sodomy law, but said, "these people are human beings" and that the president was concerned about "homophobia" and reports that LGBT people have "been beaten and locked up."

While he stopped far short of endorsing measures supported by LGBT rights advocates, this is the latest sign that the country of 16 million people may one of the few places in the region where there is an opening for political reform of anti-LGBT laws.

Many have hoped the sodomy law, which punishes same-sex relations with up to 14 years in prison, would be repealed after former President Joyce Banda called for parliament to remove it shortly after she took office in 2012. Her predecessor, President Bingu wa Mutharika, had been the focus of an international campaign involving celebrities like Elton John and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon for the release of a couple arrested after they reportedly held a traditional engagement party in late 2009. She backed off the repeal pledge a few months later though imposed a moratorium on its enforcement, and then she lost the presidency to Mutharika in 2014.

Debate over the law flared up again last month after a couple was attacked and arrested after an alleged sexual encounter in one of their homes on Dec. 7. Charges were later dropped, following public denunciation of the arrests by officials from the United States and United Kingdom.

"Malawi as a member of the international community is also committed to adhere to universally accepted human rights standards," Justice Minister Samuel Tembenu said in a statement reaffirming the moratorium on Dec. 18. "The Government therefore acknowledges the view expressed by international Human Rights bodies that the inclusion of offenses prohibiting homosexuality in our statute books/within our legislation may be at variance with the views held by such bodies."

When asked whether President Peter Mutharika believed the sodomy law should be repealed, Press Secretary Gerald Viola said his "position at the moment is pushing [the question] back to Malawians" for a vote.

"If they say we embrace the new culture, he will say ok," Viola said. "If he says we don't agree with this new culture, he is also ok."

But, Viola added, when the president "sees other people being victimized" he believes "we leave politics, laws aside — we apply human dignity to be respected."

"God is the best judge and whatever we’re doing on this," Viola said. "It’s not good to apply punitive laws on people."

Gift Trapence of the LGBT rights group CEDEP told a local newspaper after charges were dropped against the couple arrested last month that it was "an encouraging step," adding in an interview with the AP, "The next step will be for the government to get rid of discriminatory laws altogether, including those that criminalize consensual sex between adults of the same sex."