LILONGWE (Reuters) - Malawi suspended laws against same-sex relationships on Monday and ordered police not to arrest gays pending a decision on whether to repeal the legislation, a source of friction with the impoverished southern African nation's donors.

Homosexuality is banned in Malawi - as it is in 36 other African states - and carries a maximum sentence of 14 years, but Justice Minister Ralph Kasambara said he wanted debate on the issue before parliament decided whether to keep the laws or not.

"If we continue arresting and prosecuting people based on the said laws and later such laws are found to be unconstitutional it would be an embarrassment to government," he told Reuters.

"It is better to let one criminal get away with it rather than throw a lot of innocent people in jail."

In 2009, two men were arrested and charged with public indecency after becoming the first gay couple to marry in the socially conservative former British colony.

The prosecution drew international condemnation and was one of the reasons Western donors withdrew budget support to the government of Bingu wa Mutharika, who died in April.

A recent report presented to Mutharika's successor, Joyce Banda, recommended decriminalization of same-sex marriages as a way of helping the fight against the spread of HIV and AIDS.

(Reporting by Mabvuto Banda; Editing by Ed Cropley)