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Murder charges filed after woman burned alive in Papua New Guinea

February 18, 2013|By Emily Alpert
  • Bystanders watch as a woman accused of witchcraft is burned alive in the Western Highlands provincial capital of Mount Hagen in Papua New Guinea.
Bystanders watch as a woman accused of witchcraft is burned alive in the… (Associated Press / Post…)

Two people face murder charges in Papua New Guinea after a woman was burned alive, a gruesome killing that drew global attention to sorcery slayings in the Pacific nation.

A mob of attackers killed Kepari Leniata earlier this month after she was accused of bringing about the death of a 6-year-old boy using witchcraft. The 20-year-old mother was reportedly stripped and tortured with a hot iron rod before being doused in gasoline and set on fire. Photos showed crowds of people -- some of them children -- looking on as her body burned on a pile of tires and garbage.

Janet Ware and Andrew Watea, believed to be the mother and uncle of the little boy whose death spurred the attack, were charged Monday with murder, the Associated Press reported. Dozens of other people were detained last week in connection with the killing before being released; Papua New Guinea police said they expect to make more arrests in the case.

Belief in witchcraft has persisted in Papua New Guinea despite efforts by both religious and secular groups to debunk the idea. Black magic is often suspected when misfortune strikes, especially after the unexplained death of a young man, “because it is said that they have a long life ahead of them and it has been cut short,” according to research conducted by Oxfam in the country.

Accused witches have been stoned, suffocated, thrown over cliffs and buried alive, according to human rights groups. Some experts believe accusations of witchcraft are used as an excuse to kill people for more mundane reasons, usually elderly women or people with little stature in the community. Last summer, police reportedly arrested a gang of dozens of people for slaying suspected witches.

After the latest attack, outrage erupted in Papua New Guinea newspaper editorials. “It is plain and simple cold-blooded, premeditated murder in the first degree,” the National wrote last week. “There is no other way to describe it. There is no excuse for it.”

The United Nations human rights office said the murder “adds to the growing pattern of vigilante attacks” on accused sorcerers in Papua New Guinea. Two more women accused of witchcraft narrowly escaped the same fate as Leniata last week, after police rescued them from a mob of attackers, the Post Courier in Papua New Guinea reported. The attack followed the death of an 8-year-old girl.

“Nobody has the right to kill others for any reason,” provincial police commander Martin Lakari told the Post Courier after one suspect was charged with attempted murder. “The time for murderers to escape is gone.”

Prime Minister Peter O'Neill also condemned the killing of Leniata as “barbaric.” Despite government calls to halt such attacks, sorcery itself is still criminalized in Papua New Guinea. Though the same law bans the killing of accused witches, activists argue the law helps attackers justify the vigilante slayings.

"Repealing the Sorcery Act is one of the first steps the authorities must take toward preventing these horrific attacks," Kate Schuetze of Amnesty International said in a statement this month.

A national commission on constitutional reform has also stated that the law should be repealed. Despite the calls for change, some continue to defend the attacks. In a Facebook forum devoted to Papua New Guinea gossip, one person argued Friday that witches readily admit they do sorcery.

Another said simply: “Sorcery exists.”

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