A judge in Malawi has found a gay couple guilty of unnatural acts and gross indecency after a trial that drew worldwide condemnation of that country's laws on homosexuality.

Blantyre Chief Resident Magistrate Nyakwawa Usiwa issued the ruling Tuesday. The couple could be imprisoned for up to 14 years.

Steven Monjeza, 26, and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, 20, had been jailed since their arrest Dec. 27, when they celebrated their engagement with a party that drew crowds of curious and jeering onlookers.

Their hearings also drew ridicule, an indication of views on homosexuality in this traditional society — and elsewhere in Africa.

Homosexuality is illegal in at least 37 countries on the continent. In Uganda, lawmakers are considering a bill that would sentence homosexuals to life in prison and include capital punishment for "repeat offenders." Even in South Africa, the only African country that recognizes gay rights, gangs have carried out so-called "corrective" rapes on lesbians.

Hindering fight against AIDS

Michaela Clayton of the South Africa-based AIDS & Rights Alliance for Southern Africa said not only were human rights being violated, but the fight against AIDS was being hurt. Gay people forced underground were unlikely to seek counseling and treatment for AIDS, she and other activists said.

Gays and other minorities in Africa have in recent years become more assertive about their sexual orientation and about claiming their rights, Clayton said, adding that could have led to the backlash.

"We have to keep on being strategic about the way we push this agenda forward," she said.

Priti Patel of the Southern African Litigation Centre, an independent rights group, said Monjeza and Chimbalanga could appeal on the grounds that the laws under which they were prosecuted violate the country's 1994 constitution.

An earlier attempt by their lawyer to have the case thrown out on those grounds was rejected.