The latest horrific murder of a young woman in Papua New Guinea (PNG) by a mob of vigilantes has led to calls from local officials for an end to such killings.
A 20-year-old woman, identified by The National newspaper as Kepari Leniara, was stripped nude, tortured with iron rods, her body covered in petrol and burned alive on a pile of rubbish in front of a large crowd of onlookers, including children.
The incident took place Wednesday morning in the city of Mount Hagen city in the Western Highlands. A similar incident occurred in the same place about four years ago.
The young mother in the latest tragedy had been accused of “sorcery” – she was blamed for somehow causing the death of a local 6-year-old boy. Reportedly, she admitted to killing the child after he succumbed in the hospital on Tuesday, with stomach and chest pains.
The Post-Courier newspaper of PNG reported that police and firefighters, badly outnumbered by villagers and onlookers, were helpless to intervene to save the burning woman.
Nevertheless, police are seeking to file murder charges on those responsible, Agence France Presse reported.
PNG police spokesman Dominic Kakas warned: ''People believe it's [sorcery] something that exists, but it's a crime. People will have to be arrested,” according to the Sydney Morning Herald.
“As long as people believe in sorcery and they will tend to take violent action in relation to that, we will still have such killings in relation to that. That is why the commissioner is concerned, and he wants everyone to sit down and put their heads together and find a way to address this issue so that we can end or stop such senseless killings.”
Belief in sorcery, witchcraft and black magic are widespread in PNG – many innocent people have been killed for allegedly causing unexplained deaths, illnesses and accidents. Most of the victims of these extra-judicial killings are women.
"Sorcery and sorcery-related killings are growing and the government needs to come up with a law to stop such practice," a local bishop named David Piso, the head of the Gut Nius Lutheran Church, told The National.
BBC reported that an estimated 50 people are killed annually in PNG on “sorcery” charges.
“No one [should commit] such a despicable act in the society that all of us, including Kepari, belong to,' said PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill.
“Barbaric killings connected with alleged sorcery, violence against women because of this belief that sorcery kills. These are becoming all too common in certain parts of the country. It is reprehensible that women, the old and the weak in our society should be targeted for alleged sorcery or wrongs that they actually have nothing to do with.”
The U.S. Embassy in Port Moresby, the capital of PNG, condemned the murder and cited it as an example of "pervasive gender-based violence."
"We add our voice to those of Papua New Guinean religious and civil society leaders who have spoken out against the brutality inflicted upon Ms Leniata," the embassy said in a statement.
"There is no possible justification for this sort of violence. We hope that appropriate resources are devoted to identifying, prosecuting and punishing those responsible for Ms Leniata's murder."
Oxfam New Zealand noted that belief in black magic and witchcraft is so ingrained in PNG that the government recognized it the 1971 “Sorcery Act,” which punishes those practitioners with up to two years' imprisonment. Even murderers can cut their sentences by claiming “black magic” was involved in their deeds.
Last year, Rashida Manjoo, the United Nation’s special rapporteur on violence against women, said that sorcery allegations in PNG were usually a ruse designed to take land and money from women by using misfortune, mysterious illness or death as an excuse.
"It's the easy way out for someone to kill somebody else, and use sorcery as an excuse," the chairman of PNG’s Constitutional Review and Law Reform Commission, Joe Mek Teine, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.
"And you would find that the victim is totally innocent."
Oxfam NZ also reported in a study that the violence associated with sorcery accusations is a “growing problem.”
“It's not just violence that results from sorcery accusations, “the campaigner group said.
“It can cause family breakdown. It escalates simmering tribal tensions and conflict. People accused can lose their land, gardens and livelihoods. It fosters fear and suspicion among communities.”
In PNG, already beset by high rates of poverty and disease, some people are even attributing the rising incidence of HIV/AIDS to witchcraft and sorcery, thereby hurting efforts to slow down the spread of infection.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.