Malawi’s jailed witches get a lease on life

Afriknews, Kabelo Marupi, 18 Feb. 2011
A human rights group in Malawi is causing a stir as it embarks on a mission to gather 10,000 signatures from locals to force President Bingu wa Mutharika free several jailed witches.

Association of Secular Humanism (ASH) says most of the convicts are women jailed for teaching witchcraft to children. Reports say some are doing jail time of up to six years.

“I’m asking you to sign this petition to help us reach our goal of 10,000 signatures. I care deeply about this cause, and I hope you will support our efforts,” a senior official of the association, Harold Williams is quoted saying.

The petition reads: “Belief in witchcraft is widely held in Malawi by people of all levels of education and stature in society. Whereas the law does not accept the reality of witchcraft, the Police and judicial authorities, many of whom share the belief, distort the law to punish those who are accused of witchcraft”

“It is mainly the elderly, men and women, who are accused of witchcraft and there are many very elderly and infirm imprisoned throughout Malawi – sentenced for up to 6 years without anything that would pass as substantive evidence in courts which do not accept superstition and suspicion as adequate.”

“The Association of Secular Humanism in Malawi has made several attempts to persuade the authorities to release these unfortunates and has visited many in our prisons. We need your help!”

Old and frail

Some of the jailed are very old and frail and sometimes believed to express certain forms of illnesses or behaviours due to their old age.

And without the help of ASH, 83 year-old Liness Nkhukuyalira, 80 year-old Kanthunkhako Supaunyolo and Nurse Nthala aged 75, who were all thrown into jail after having been accused of witchcraft by their neighbours, would still be in jail.

However, according to Malawi laws, witchcraft does not exist and one risks prosecution for conduct likely to cause breach of public peace for suggesting that someone is a witch or pretending to be one by claiming to practice witchcraft.

Hunting for witches

Lately, due to an increase in incidences of suspected witchcraft, the Malawi government has moved to set up a committee to incorporate witchcraft in the country’s laws.

In January, the association executive director George Thindwa said his group was battling to secure the release of 50 other women jailed for witchcraft.

Thindwa said his association had at the time raised $90, through donations to pay fines to get the jailed women out of prison.

But locals are divided on the petition stance. Whilst some claim that it is a crime to fly at night, others have called for a departure from ancient beliefs and superstitions, backward thinking that prevents Africa’s progress.

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