Kapiri Mposhi, Zambia - A Zambian gay couple charged over homosexuality saw the verdict in their case postponed for a second time on Monday after a magistrate failed to turn up, sparking anger among foreign observers.
The pair have been held since May 2013 on charges of having sex “against the order of nature” over a two-week period in April that year - the first known arrests of a gay couple in the southern African country.
Philip Mubiana, 22, and James Mwape, 21, who face up to 15 years in jail if convicted of sodomy, must now wait until July 3 to hear the verdict in the high-profile case.
“It is unfortunate that the case has again been adjourned,” said US charge d'affaires David Young, flanked by German ambassador Bernd Finke and UNAIDS country coordinator Helen Frary after the hearing in a packed courtroom.
Magistrate Ackson Mumba told the court in Kapiri Mposhi, some 200 kilometres (125 miles) north of capital Lusaka, that his colleague who is handling the case, John Mbuzi, would not be turning up, without explaining why.
“As you know this case is handled by the principal resident magistrate and he has informed me that he will not be available,” Mumba said. “So we are adjourning to July 3, 2014, for judgement.”
After the case was adjourned, Young and his colleagues spoke to the couple in a holding cell at the court for around 15 minutes.
It is the second time the verdict has been postponed.
It was originally slated for last Monday, but was shifted by a week after the magistrate said one of the parties had not handed in its written submission. He did not specify whether it was the defence or prosecution that defaulted.
Rights lobbyists have slammed the delays.
“This is uncalled for. They have been in detention for a long time,” said independent rights activist Brebner Changa.
“This trial is sending wrong signals about Zambia to the outside world,” he added.
Accusing government of being “overzealous”, Changa called for the couple to be acquitted.
The two men were arrested after being reported to the police by one of Mubiana's relatives.
In February another Zambian magistrate court acquitted top gay rights activist Paul Kasonkomona on charges of encouraging homosexuality after concluding that the prosecution failed to prove its case.