Officials at the State Department said Thursday they were “appalled” by the 14-year sentence given to a gay couple in Malawi.

“The United State is appalled by today's sentencing of same-sex couple Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza to 14-years of hard labor,” State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said during a press briefing.

A Malawi judge imposed the maximum sentence allowed by law on the men for participating in a symbolic engagement ceremony in December. The pair were arrested two days after holding their ceremony in Blantyre, the country's largest city, and were found guilty earlier this week of unnatural acts and gross indecency.

In issuing his sentence, Magistrate Nyakwawa Usiwa-Usiwa said he wanted to give the men a “scaring sentence” to “protect” the public.

“We view the criminalization of sexual orientation and gender identity and sentencing to 14-years hard labor as a deeply troubling violation of human rights,” Crowley added. “Decriminalization of homosexuality is integral to the continued protection of universal human rights in Malawi. It is also crucial to the urgent need to fight the spread of HIV/AIDS – a fight in which the United States is closely allied with the Malawian people.”

In statement issued late Thursday, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said: “The criminalization of sexual orientation and gender identity is unconscionable, and this case mars the human rights record of Malawi.”

Anti-gay sentiment in African has risen to dramatic new highs in recent years, prompting lawmakers in several countries to respond with stronger punishments against being gay, including an anti-gay measure in Uganda that includes a death provision under certain circumstances. At least thirty-seven African countries currently outlaw being gay.

The State Department, Crowley said, remained “disturbed” by laws that criminalize being gay and urged nations to reject such measures.

The Malawi couple, 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.