|"Hundreds of bystanders watched as a woman accused of witchcraft was being burned alive in the Western Highlands provincial capital of Mount Hagen in Papua New Guinea, Feb. 6, 2013." (Post Courier/AP)|
By Ian Lloyd
Time.com, June 5, 2013
"One step forward and several giant steps back. That's how the UN's human-rights office described the reintroduction last week of the death penalty in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and the concurrent repealing by parliament of the country's bizarre 1971 Sorcery Act. Straight off a script for Game of Thrones, the act's preamble recognized that various forms of sorcery existed and criminalized the practice of 'evil sorcery' or sanguma. While disputes over sorcery seldom came before the national judicial system, they are common in traditional village courts, where the belief that somebody is practicing sanguma has been used in defense of murder. The law's demise, and the reintroduction of the death penalty as a bid to curb sorcery-related killings, followed international outcry over a series of gruesome deaths earlier this year: the burning at the stake in February of a young mother in front of large crowd in the city of Mount Hagen, the decapitation of a retired school teacher in the autonomous region of Bougainville when I visited PNG in April, and the kidnapping and torturing with hot iron of six women and one man in the Southern Highlands province during the Easter weekend. '[This is] to stop this nonsense about witchcraft,' Prime Minister Peter O'Neill said on announcing his intention to scrap the law in parliament. But according to Richard Eves, an Australian anthropologist who specializes in PNG, political will alone shouldn’t be seen as a magic bullet against sorcery-related violence. Despite 19th century colonial attempts to eradicate it, sorcery is hardwired into the traditional culture of the country and has long been a quotidian fact of life across the socioeconomic and geographic spectrum.
'There are more than 800 different cultures in PNG, and belief in sorcery is pervasive across most of them,' Eves tells TIME. Scant policing, he says, helps the practice to thrive. 'Legislation and good policy don't necessarily mean an end to the problem because the ratio of police to population is quite low. When you've got an armed mob screaming for blood, there's nothing much a few policemen can do. And the fact is that police in PNG are just as likely to believe the accused are guilty as charged.' Most accusations of sanguma in PNG stem from unexplained or early deaths from diseases like HIV/AIDS, where family members seek scapegoats to mitigate their grief. The immolation in Mount Hagen of 20-year-old Kepari Leniata was a textbook example: it followed the death, apparently from rheumatic fever, of a 6-year-old boy the accused walked past on the street. Witch doctors who claim to cure sickness or chase out evil spirits with 'good sorcery' also play a part by perpetuating and profiteering from superstitions. 'My mother had cervical cancer, and the first thing the family did is say it was witchcraft,' says Angela Pora, a manager at Mount Hagen’s Highlander Hotel. 'They took her to a witch doctor who used herbs and smoke, but she died anyway. I wanted her to go to the hospital, but who would listen to me? They would have turned against me if I tried to intervene.' [...]"