Zambia’s President has pardoned two gay men who were jailed in 2019 for having sex.

To mark Africa Freedom Day, which fell on Monday (25 May), President Edgar Lungu released 3000 prison inmates including Japhet Chataba, 39, and Steven Samba, 31, according to the government gazette.

Chataba and Samba were sentenced to 15 years in prison last year under a law that forbids couples from having sex “against the order of nature,” a decision that resulted in outrage from Zambia’s United States ambassador.

Daniel Foote said he was “personally horrified” by the sentence and called on the government to reconsider laws that punish minority groups. After causing a diplomatic row, Foote was recalled back to Washington in December.

“A State Department spokesperson said Ambassador Daniel Foote’s job in Zambia is ‘no longer tenable’ because Zambian President Edgar Lungu said he no longer wants to work with Foote,” Voice of America reported at the time.

Daniel Foote

Responding to Foote’s comments, Lungu came out in defence of Zambia’s anti-gay laws, explaining: “We are saying no to homosexuality. Are you saying that we’re very primitive now because we’re frowning on homosexuality?

“Even animals don’t do it, so why should we be forced to do it? We want to be seen to be smart, civilised and advanced and so on. If that is how you will bring your aid then I am afraid the West can leave us alone in our poverty.”

It should be noted that same-sex behaviour can be found in over 1,500 animal species, including animals like lions or penguins.

Foreign Minister Joseph Malanji also said Foote’s remarks were “tantamount to questioning the Zambian constitution”.

Edgar Lungu

Foote – who served as the US ambassador since December 2017 – later expressed “shocked at the venom and hate directed at me and my country, largely in the name of ‘Christian’ values, by a small minority of Zambians.

“It is up to Zambian citizens and the courts to decide if your laws correspond to your constitution, but your constitution itself provides every person the right to freedom and expression of conscience and belief.

“I expressed my belief about a law and a harsh sentencing I don’t agree with. I didn’t interfere in internal affairs.”

Same-sex sexual activity is illegal for both men and women in Zambia, and social attitudes towards people are wholly negative.

The African nation still regularly enforce colonial era anti-gay laws, with public opinion coloured by perceptions that homosexuality is immoral and a form of insanity.