Rise in sorcery killings forces law review (Papua New Guinea)

Patrick Matbob, Islands Business, 15 August 2011
When former administrator of PNG’s Madang province died suddenly early this year, doctors attributed his death to stroke. He was known to suffer from a heart condition.  However, his relatives did not think so. They were certain his death was caused by sorcery and were determined to find out who was responsible. This did not come as a surprise to many Papua New Guineans. The late administrator came from Simbu, a province that has become notorious in recent times for the execution of people suspected of being ‘sorcerers’ and ‘witches’. Many of them have unfortunately been defenceless elderly women.

As expected, the media soon reported that a villager had ‘confessed’ to using sorcery to kill the late administrator. The picture of the ‘confessor’ in the newspaper clearly showed he had been beaten up with bloodied and swollen face and was guarded by men armed with machetes. He also named eight other ‘sorcerers’ who he said had collaborated with him in causing the death.

Coincidentally, another senior politician from Simbu, Joe Mek Teine, also died hours after that day from stroke. Teine, a lawyer by profession, was the chairman of the Constitutional and Law Reform Commission (CLRC) and had been reviewing the law on sorcery and sorcery-related killings when he passed away. The commission was gathering views and submissions on the issue from people nationwide.

The practice of sorcery and witchcraft is firmly entrenched in PNG society and has not diminished despite more than 100 years of Christian and Western influences. Most Papua New Guineans, no matter how highly educated and sophisticated they may be, still believe and fear sorcery and witchcraft.

The rise in sorcery killings is proof of the failing authority and influence of state institutions and governance systems brought about by the deterioration of basic services and infrastructures throughout PNG.

Sorcery-related killings are common in PNG; however, in recent years, there has been an alarming increase in the highlands region. The former Minister for Justice and Attorney-General Dr Allan Marat in response to community concerns ordered a review of the law on sorcery and sorcery-related killings.

The commission is in the process of reviewing the laws, assessing the effectiveness of penalties given by the courts, determine if the laws need to be modified, and recommend appropriate legislative amendments.

The commission has consulted leading PNG institutions such as the Melanesian Institute, Institute of PNG Studies, National Research Institute, Department of Justice and Attorney General, Office of the Public Prosecutor, Office of the Ombudsman Commission, Universities of PNG, Divine Word and Pacific Adventist, Catholic Bishop Conference and PNG Council of Churches.

The commission is also carrying out a nationwide consultation with major stakeholders and the general public. A final report is being scheduled for September 22 this year.

PNG law defines sorcery (Sorcery Act 1971) and recognises its existence in PNG’s numerous languages as witchcraft, magic, enchantment, puri puri, muramura dikana, vada, mea mea, sanguma or malira.

The law recognises that the ideas of sorcery and witchcraft and its practices are not the same throughout the country.

In PNG, the violence associated with sorcery happens in two ways. Firstly, when someone is suspected of an act of sorcery and is hurt or killed by relatives of the victim. The second is where a person or group of persons kill or assault a suspected sorcerer.

In PNG, natural illnesses and deaths as well as medical reasons are not easily accepted by the people. They do not accept that people ‘simply die’.

Accidents, illness and death is usually associated with and even attributed to sorcery. In Simbu province alone, it is estimated that 150 cases of violence and killing occur each year, as a result of witchcraft accusations.

Authorities recognise that in many parts of PNG, sorcery operates as a legal sanction against wrong doing. The commission reported that: “Sorcery, as it is been pointed out, is used as the ultimate form of legal sanction against anti-social behaviour. As the ultimate punishment, it is on the same scale as capital punishment in jurisdictions that still retain capital punishment.”

In the 70s, the government decided on five ways to fight sorcery which would be through the spread of Christianity, formal education, severe punishments of sorcerers; increased economic activity and constant persuasion, discouragement and disbelief in sorcery.

There was a further eleven specific recommendations to deal with sorcery which include minimum penalty of five years of imprisonment with hard labour and the courts should also allow detection of sorcery through divination, however, this evidence should be corroborated.

In many coastal areas of PNG, sorcery is also seen as responsible for preventing economic and social advancement of individuals or clans.

Any person who becomes successful and wealthy in business or achieves high positions in public or private sector has to be careful not to upset his or her rivals who would resort to sorcery to remove such person. Some even blame European contact and colonisation for the increase in sorcery.

They believe that strong western laws that prevented tribal and clan wars to resolve issues have forced people to resort to sorcery to settle issues.

From 2000-2006, there were 116 cases of malevolent sorcery stories published in The National and Post-Courier newspapers. Fifty-five were located in the Highlands, 30 in Momase, 23 in the Southern region, and eight in New Guinea islands.

Of the 116 cases, 75 involved the torture and killings of 147 victims—52 males and 69 females while 26 were not specified. However, there are hundreds of cases going unreported each day in PNG.

Colonial administrators of PNG decided to legislate against malevolent sorcery on the basis that sorcerers frighten many people through their deceits.

Thus it became illegal to practice or to pretend to practise malevolent sorcery; to threaten its use; to procure a sorcerer; to be found in possession of implements and charms used in sorcery; or to accept payment or presents to propitiate a sorcerer.

The move to review the law on sorcery in 2009 came after an uproar from the society following news media headlines which reported that people accused of sorcery have been ‘roasted over slow fire’, ‘nailed to crosses’, ‘hung in public places and beaten to death’, ‘tortured with burning rods’, ‘bludgeoned to death’, chopped up and poured over with kerosene and burnt’.

It was reported in the Post-Courier newspaper of February 13, 2009 that:

• On January 6, 2009, a group of men stripped a young woman naked, gagged and burnt her alive at Kerabug rubbish dump in Mount Hagen after she was suspected of practicing witchcraft;

• A father and son were killed in Banz, Western Highlands, by vigilante groups on accusation of committing sorcery; and

• In January 2009, a ‘Kangaroo court’ comprising church pastors and local leaders found a 40-year old man from Ungai Bena in Eastern Highlands Province guilty of sorcery and sentenced him to death. Local men then hacked him to death; and

• Provincial police commanders in Eastern Highlands and Chimbu provinces have told journalists that there have been more than 50 cases of sorcery related killings in their respective provinces and expressed concern that sorcery related killings were on the rise.

These atrocities have attracted international attention from Amnesty International. It has called on the Government of PNG and its law enforcement agencies to ‘act now to end the rash’ of killings related to allegations of sorcery.



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