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.



  • Thank you for writing this article - there are not enough words to describe how disturbing this level of inhumane violence is. It is a small relief that it is being brought to the attention of larger organisations that may be able to have enough weight do something, rather than become another sad story of something bad happening somewhere else far away from us.

    (I do have one small correction of the piece - and I hate to be "that girl" - but The Crucible was written by Arthur Miller, not Henry Miller.)

    Date and time
    April 12, 2013, 9:19AM
    • As horrible as this situation is, I'm honestly never sure how much impact campaigns like this one by Amnesty really have. There is already a push inside PNG to change the laws relating to sorcery, and how that goes will be determined by politicians who are answerable to interests in their own country, rather than to the people overseas who sign this petition. And even if legal changes are made, the PNG government would still have to enforce the new law in a country with deeply entrenched traditional beliefs, the inter-related issues of poverty and endemic violence and a geography that makes effective governance a challenge. My guess is that ultimately more will come of supporting the sort of project Oxfam is working on with local NGOs to understand and then tackle the causes through not just bringing about more meaningful on the ground change through education and poverty reduction.

      Date and time
      April 12, 2013, 9:28AM
      • The best results come through both types of campaigns, service delivery through and international and domestic advocacy campaign through Amnesty. They work together and increase the impact of both. Putting all of our efforts into medium to long term solutions does nothing to protect those who are under threat today. Campaigns like this one have delivered results; people have been freed, executions have been stopped, torture has been outlawed.

        Date and time
        April 12, 2013, 11:46AM
    • What is the real solution to this kind of supernatural mania? And when is it appropriate to stay the hand of the less morally advanced via our righteous, civilised West? As mentioned in the article, it was only a hundred years ago that similar things were still happening in our rural areas for perceived slights.

      Would these villagers have the same recourse to action if we took their primitive beliefs away from them and infused them with some more civilising Christian presence? Or do we take away the refuge of any religion altogether and give the scoundrels even fewer places to hide?

      No easy answers.

      Date and time
      April 12, 2013, 10:03AM
      • This is such an eye opening article and really hard to believe this still happens - and in our neighbourhood nonetheless!!

        Date and time
        April 12, 2013, 10:13AM
        • Many people in PNG are aghast at the seeming increase in sorcery related killings of men (which are less common) and women - the problem is that I don't know if there is more incidence or if there is actually just more reporting of it because of the increase of mobile telephony and internet access. The government doesn't have the capacity to police effectively normally, let alone in these cases. There have been reports of the crowds around these activities blocking medical and emergency services from assisting the targets of the violence.

          Repealing the sorcery act will do nothing, but it is a step in the right direction. I scarcly believe that the sorcery act would come into the mind of the people carrying out these acts - it is more basic than that, it is about fear. We cannot deny that the mob mentality and fear of sorcerers is real, but the reactions to perceived threats are wildly outrageous. People talk in hushed tones about sorcerers and what they can do - even the most faithful God-believers may still believe in black or white magics. Just because it is outside our belief system doesnt mean it doesnt exist.
          The force of change has to come from within PNG, and it is, but it does not happen overnight unfortunately for the future victims of these acts of brutality.

          Date and time
          April 12, 2013, 11:43AM
          • This is completely shocking and I think most Australia's would be surprised to find something this barbaric happening so close to home. Just like Amelia, I remember reading the Crucible and feeling glad I was born in times when this kind of thing didn't happen - I do not feel so glad anymore.

            There might not be an instant solution but the more people that know it is happening, the better. How can any change occur if we are ignorant to such abuses? Or think someone else will do something to make it better? Well done Amnesty for bringing this to our attention.

            Date and time
            April 12, 2013, 11:46AM
            • What a great article. I think we need to take a simple look at the issue and violence against women is never acceptable regardless of race, religion or culture.

              While there is no doubt that the work of local NGOs on the ground is of crucial importance, having international attention on the issue will further help the push for change. Every voice is important and every signature counts. Small actions for big change!!

              Date and time
              April 12, 2013, 11:58AM
              • This is shocking, horrific and disturbing. Freedom of religion is a human right which everyone should enjoy however nothing can be used to justify torture and such barbaric acts.

                Date and time
                April 12, 2013, 2:27PM
                • This is an excellent and thought-provoking piece on an issue that deserves our attention and action. Violence against women in any context should never be condoned or ignored, and we are all responsible for taking a stand on behalf of victims of these appalling crimes.

                  Date and time
                  April 12, 2013, 2:32PM

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