Madonna has said she is “shocked” at Malawi for sentencing a gay couple to 14 years in jail.

Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga were handed the harsh sentence yesterday for holding a traditional marriage ceremony in December.

Madonna, who is the adoptive mother of two Malawian children and possibly the country’s most famous benefactor, called on the country to challenge the court’s decision.

She said in a statement to Access Hollywood: “I am shocked and saddened by the decision made today by the Malawian court, which sentenced two innocent men to prison.

“As a matter of principle, I believe in equal rights for all people, no matter what their gender, race, colour, religion, or sexual orientation.

“Today, Malawi took a giant step backward. The world is filled with pain and suffering; therefore, we must support our basic human right to love and be loved.

“I call upon the progressive men and women of Malawi – and around the world – to challenge this decision in the name of human dignity and equal rights for all.”

It is the first time the singer has spoken publicly about the couple’s plight. They have been in custody since December and denied the charges of gross indecency and unnatural acts.

Madonna’s children Mercy, five, and David, four, were born in Malawi. Both adoptions were criticised and it was claimed she had circumvented laws on foreigners adopting children from the country.

Mr Monjeza and Mr Tiwonge’s sentence has been criticised around the world.

Yesterday, international development minister Alan Duncan said “urgent representations” were being made to the country, while US White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said President Barack Obama “strongly condemns” the sentence.