Malawi’s army on Friday denied officers were driven by homophobia when they beat up a transgender woman in a video that went viral and sparked outrage.
The southern African country criminalises same-sex relations and the 18-second clip of two soldiers holding down and beating the transgender woman at an army barracks sparked backlash on social media.
Malawi Army spokesperson Paul Chiphwanya disputed claims that the individual was targeted because of their sexual identity.
“The truth is that the individual was beaten because they stole a car belonging to an army officer and not because they are transgender,” he said.
In the video, a man in camouflage uniform can be seen whipping the passive victim with a leather sjambok, a heavy whip often used by security forces.
Another man joins the officer, slapping and pushing as he orders the victim to lie down flat on her belly to receive further lashes on her buttocks.
Chiphwanya said he did not have further details on the circumstances of the beating while Malawi police spokesperson James Kadadzera said no complaint of assault had been lodged.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Malawi face routine violence and discrimination in almost all aspects of their daily lives.
According to a 2019 Human Rights Watch report, police often physically assault, arbitrarily arrest and detain them, sometimes without due process or legal basis. Others are punished for trying to exercise basic rights, including seeking treatment in hospitals.
Social media users were appalled by the video.
“Horrific violence and serious human rights abuses in this incident,” HRW director Dewa Mavhinga tweeted.
Director for the Coalition for the Empowerment of Women and Girls, Beatrice Mateyo, criticised the officers for failing to protect the citizen’s rights “despite their gender and sexual orientation”.
She said intolerance in Malawi often used religion as an excuse to violate the rights of people who were seen to be different.
Most of Malawi’s 18 million people are Christian or Muslim, whose religious education often describes homosexuality as taboo or a sin.
Malawi’s penal code criminalises same-sex relations as an “unnatural offence”, punishable by up to 14 years in prison.
The United Nations resident coordinator Maria Jose Torres told AFP the agency was “concerned” and called for authorities to investigate.
“Under Malawian law, physical assault is a crime,” she said.