Blantyre - Malawi lawyers on Thursday criticised President Joyce Banda's government for suspending sodomy laws until they are debated by parliament, calling the move “unconstitutional and illegal”.

“It’s unconstitutional, illegal and an insult to parliament to temporarily suspend the criminalisation of same-sex marriage laws,” said Gift Mankwawa, president of the Malawi Law Society (MLS), a powerful grouping of lawyers.

Mankwawa said the government should have followed “appropriate channels through parliament or the courts to issue such a suspension”.

“This means any minister can wake up and start suspending any law,” he added.

On Monday, Justice Minister Ralph Kasambara announced the suspension of sodomy laws banning same-sex relationships, a move welcomed by rights groups.

By suspending the controversial laws, Mankhwawa accused the government of “playing politics just to please donors”.

Under the country's penal code, men can be sentenced for up to 14 years and women to five years for homosexuality.

In 2010, Malawi drew international condemnation after two gay men were sentenced to 14 years of hard labour for sodomy during late president Bingu wa Mutharika's rule.

The couple were, however, released amid an international outcry.

After taking office in April, Banda said the laws should be abolished.

Rights group Amnesty International said the shelving of the laws was a “historic step in the fight against discrimination”. - Sapa-AFP