A Malawi judge has sentenced a gay couple to 14 years of hard labor – the maximum sentence allowed by law – for participating in a symbolic engagement ceremony in December, ABC News reported.

The men, Tiwonge Chimbalanga, 33, and Steven Monjeza, 26, were arrested two days after holding their ceremony in Blantyre, Malawi's largest city, and found guilty earlier this week of unnatural acts and gross indecency.

Magistrate Nyakwawa Usiwa-Usiwa found the couple guilty of “carnal knowledge” that was “against the order of nature.”

In issuing his sentence, Usiwa-Usiwa said he wanted “protect” the public.

“I will give you a scaring sentence so that the public be protected from people like you, so that we are not tempted to emulate this horrendous example,” he said.

On Tuesday, the Department of State condemned the conviction.

“The United States is deeply disappointed in today's conviction of same-sex couple Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza in Malawi,” Assistant Secretary Philip J. Crowley said in a press briefing Tuesday. “We view the criminalization of sexual orientation and gender identity as a step backward in the protection of human rights in Malawi.”

The AFP reported that hundreds of people attended the couple's engagement, believed to be the first in the country.

“I went there to see for myself a gay couple,” Finiasi Chikaoneka told the news service.

“There were many people who were just curious about the whole affair because this was the first time that gays have come out openly,” he added.

Anti-gay sentiment in Africa has risen to dramatic new highs in recent years, prompting lawmakers to press for stronger punishments against being gay. A proposed law in Uganda that has drawn worldwide outrage would outlaw gay sex and includes a death provision for repeat offenders and people who are HIV-positive, increasing the penalties for having gay sex in a country where it's already banned. Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe has rejected a call to protect gay men and lesbians in a constitution being drawn up under a power-sharing deal. “We can't do it or the dead will turn in their graves,” he said.

Speaking last month during the installation of a Roman Catholic Bishop in Blantyre, Malawi President Bingu wa Mutharika condemned being gay: “This is evil and bad before the eyes of God. There are certain things we Malawians just do not do.”

At least thirty-seven African countries have outlawed being gay.

The men, who have been held in separate cells since their December 28 arrest, are expected to appeal the ruling with the help of international human rights groups.