Nsanje (Malawi) (AFP) - An HIV-positive Malawian man who said he had sex with at least 100 girls and women in traditional cleansing rituals was sentenced Tuesday to two years in jail for "harmful practices".
Eric Aniva, 45, was prosecuted on the orders of President Peter Mutharika after publicly speaking about his role as a "hyena" in a BBC radio documentary earlier this year.
"I convict you to serve 24 months' imprisonment," judge Innocent Nebi told Aniva in a packed courtroom in the remote southern district of Nsanje.
In the first case of its kind, Aniva was found guilty on two charges on Friday after a one-day trial.
Custom in some parts of southern Malawi demands that a man, known as a "hyena", is paid to have sex with bereaved widows to exorcise evil spirits and to prevent other deaths occurring.
At the request of a girl's parents, the "hyena" is also paid to have sex with adolescent girls to mark their passage to womanhood after their first menstruation.
Aniva, who pleaded not guilty, told AFP immediately after the sentence: "I am disappointed because I thought I would be given a suspended sentence."
The charges, brought under the gender equality act, involved sex with bereaved widows as none of the younger girls would testify.
- International outcry -
The ritual, which many Malawians say is rarely practised today, is believed to also train girls to become good wives and protect them from disease or misfortune that could fall on their families.
"The convict had no regard to the feelings of widows, no regard to dignity of women and it is even doubtful that condoms were used," the judge said. "Such a culture has no place in Malawi."
After an international outcry over the documentary, President Mutharika ordered Aniva's arrest in July.
"This case represents the reality on the ground and is a breakthrough because the law has taken its course," Charles Mazenga, deputy director in the gender and children ministry, told AFP.
He said Malawi had "passed a big test" and he hoped the punishment on Aniva "would help put sexual cleansing to its end."
Malawi is one of the worst HIV-affected countries in the world, with 27,000 deaths from AIDS-related illnesses and nine percent of the adult population infected with the virus.
Aniva faced a maximum five-year jail term, and his lawyers said they would launch an appeal.
"This is a miscarriage of justice," said lawyer Michael Chipeta. "There were a lot of errors made in the conviction and sentencing."
Aniva had told the BBC that he had slept with at least 104 women and girls, some as young as 12, in a ritual that lasts three days.
He said each family paid him a fee of between $4 and $7.
"As a country we have a lot of work to do in raising awareness on HIV and AIDS prevention and its impact," Maziko Matemba, director of the Health and Rights Education Program non-profit group, told AFP.
"The sentencing has opened a new chapter."
But, outside the court, local farmer Ganizani Ngololombe, 38, told AFP that the ritual of sexual cleansing by "hyenas" would not be easily stopped "because it is deeply rooted here."