Witch Hunts

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Authorities and civil society groups in Papua New Guinea are raising the alarm about the brutal practice of witch-hunting in the country, following a high-profile case that saw the deaths of four women and the torture of five others accused of witchcraft, Al Jazeera reported Tuesday.

Earlier this month, nine women faced accusations of witchcraft for allegedly causing the death of trucking magnate Jacob Luke in Enga Province last month.

Luke, who had been bushwalking in the province is believed to have died from a potential heart attack or stroke, but members of his tribe singled out the women and accused them of “kaikai lewa”, or “secretly removing the victim’s heart and eating it to gain their virility,” the news organization wrote.

One woman who confessed out of fear was burned alive. Five others were then gruesomely tortured in public, leaving them with major wounds and scars.

News of the event spread in the province, prompting six police officers and one layman to rescue five women that survived the gruesome ordeal.

The brutal torture and murders have been described as sorcery-accusation-related violence (SARV) in Papua New Guinea.

Dickson Tanda, the Catholic Church’s SARV coordinator in Enga, said that witch hunting had become more frequent and more barbaric in Enga, a poor, underdeveloped province in the highlands of the country. He added that since 2015 he has helped rescue more than 600 women and children accused of sorcery.

A number of studies from the Australian National University (ANU) warned that authorities must address witch-hunting, adding that the practice was “entering new geographical areas.”

Enga Province police chief George Kakas also noted that part of the problem stems from the impunity allowed to those who carry out SARV attacks. He lamented that only a few witnesses come forward to assist law enforcement. He added that police are poorly resourced and educated and sometimes participate in extracting confessions from alleged witches.

A 2017 ANU study found that only 91 out of 15,000 perpetrators of SARV had resultedly served time in prison. A follow-up study also found that misogyny was a factor both in the crimes and the response to them.

Although there have been various government initiatives to stamp out the violence, none of them have been successful.

Meanwhile, activists blame some church leaders for instigating the violence or remaining neutral about it. They noted that the Catholic Church is one of the few that is actively fighting SARV.

Activist Anton Lutz told Al Jazeera that the church has gone far as to excommunicate “individuals and entire congregations that have aided and abetted torture,” while also running safe houses for survivors.

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