Tortured for being ‘sorcerers’

Women gather to discuss violence against women in PNG at the Southern Highlands Human Rights Committee Meeting.

Women gather to discuss violence against women in PNG at the Southern Highlands Human Rights Committee Meeting.

I remember as a teenager watching The Crucible in shock and disgust, safe in the knowledge the enthralling movie was far removed from the "real world" I lived in.

The film, based on Arthur Miller's 1953 classic play of the same name, sees a town swept by rumours and accusations of witchcraft, with each accused person in turn accusing someone else of being involved in scandalous acts of sorcery and sabotage, in the hope of avoiding a grisly fate at the end of a noose.

As one innocent person after another is dragged into the toxic gossip mill, reputations are muddied and lives lost. For me as a viewer, a young woman in suburban Sydney, this was both shocking and thrilling. Moved and scared as I was, I still slept soundly that night, believing the fact that the Hollywood drama was set in the American town of Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692 meant the life I lived and the people around me were far removed from this tale of sorcery and treachery.

Calling for an end to gender violence in PNG.

Calling for an end to gender violence in PNG. Photo: Amnesty International

So what if I was to tell you the link between this film and my modern day life is not so tenuous, only geographically separated by a four-hour flight? That's because you only need to look at Australia's closest neighbour, Papua New Guinea, to find a country mired in such hysterical and torturous acts as seen in this fictional film.


The most recent documented case of violence stemming from allegations of "sorcery" took place last week. Reports have trickled out of PNG that despite police attempting to negotiate with an angry mob, the crowd continued to behead a woman they were accusing of sorcery, in front of villagers in the town of Lopelle. Three others are reportedly still in hiding after the attack.

The news follows equally disturbing claims of the torture of seven people over the Easter break. A man by the name of Komape Lap claims he and six women had their hands tied, were stripped naked and had hot iron rods pushed into their genitals. He says they were set upon after a vigilante group claimed he and the other women had been committing acts of sorcery.

Komape escaped and has lived to tell this tale, but the fate of the six women is unknown.

In February, 20-year-old Kepari Leniata, a mother of one, was stripped, tied up, doused in petrol and burnt alive by relatives of a young boy she was accused of using witchcraft to kill. Two people were charged over the incident.

This growing list of victims raises the question, just how widespread is this issue and what is the PNG government doing about it?

Amnesty International research has found that in PNG sorcery claims are often used to commit violence against women, but the precise number of cases is still unknown as many go unreported for fear of retribution against those accused and against their family members and friends.

The PNG government has failed to repeal the Sorcery Act 1971 despite recommendations from PNG's Constitutional and Law Reform Commission that it do so. The legislation criminalises the practice of "forbidden sorcery", fuelling the dangerous accusations that often culminate in torture and deaths.

The increase and severity of these attacks has led Amnesty to urge the government to not only make sure police are properly resourced to stop attacks but also to ensure authorities bring the perpetrators of these crimes to justice and fast-track the reform of laws that appear to condone this violence.

Amnesty International Pacific Researcher Kate Schuetze recalls witnessing the inadequate response by PNG police while on a mission in March 2013.

"The police often claim they are 'helpless' to intervene against a mob of angry villagers, but it is their primary responsibility to protect people from harm," says Schuetze.;

"[For instance], there has been no police investigation or charges laid as a result of the 2006 dissappearance of women's rights advocate Anna Benny. And while there are concerns about the lack of resources of the police, there is also a reluctance to prosecute or pursue cases involving sorcery related violence and a lack of political will to change the social landscape where violence against women is endemic."

"Women are more often accused of sorcery than men and suffer more brutal forms of violence. [In that sense], sorcery accusations have become a convenient mask for violence against women. For this reason, we are calling on the government to accelerate the passing of domestic violence laws, through the Family Protection Bill to provide essential protection for women from all forms of violence."

The recent examples of sorcery violence are the latest in a series of attacks so sickening they're worse than the plot of any film you've ever seen, no matter how many special effects or Oscar-worthy performances.

We can only hope that in real life, unlike what happens to the victims in The Crucible, PNG's political leadership prevails and not the hysteria of mob violence.


Amelia Freelander is Media and Public Affairs Coordinator of Amnesty International. Find out more about the campaign to end 'sorcery killings' here.