Just days after a 20-year-old mother named Kepara Leniata was accused of being a witch and set on fire in front of relatives and authorities after the death of a 6-year-old boy last Monday, police in Mt. Hagen in Papua New Guinea told reporters that they have rescued two elderly women from sharing the same fate.
Police commander Teddy Tei said the two women were tied to poles and tortured, on the brink of being burned alive in connection with the death of an 8-year-old girl, who was later revealed to have been gang-raped and strangled, the Daily Mail reported. Police said the suspect is still at large. About 20 people were arrested in connection with this incident, the Telegraph said. Police also said there was a “glassman” present, a man who claimed to have supernatural powers and had identified these two women as those responsible for the girl’s death.
On Friday, police in Mt. Hagen also announced they have arrested about 100 people in connection with Leniata’s murder.
"Police are now in the process of interviewing them. We will know by today or during the weekend how many are formally charged with murder and how many are released," Provincial Police Commander Martin Lakari told the National newspaper.
Belief in sorcery and witchcraft are still very widespread in Papua New Guinea. Leniata’s extrajudicial execution sparked a small international kerfuffle, with authorities at the U.N., in the U.S. and in Australia condemning her death. PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill described the killings as “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," O’Neill told AFP.
A spokesperson for the U.N. High Commission on Human Rights said they “note with great concern that this case adds to the growing pattern of vigilante attacks and killings of persons accused of sorcery in Papua New Guinea.”
The Office of the High Commission for Human Rights could not immediately be reached for comment on the latest witch-burning attempts.
Benjamin Poponawa, chairman of PNG's constitutional law reform commission, or CLRC, said there would be a measure introduced in Parliament to repeal PNG's colonial-era sorcery legislation. PNG spent much of its modern history as a British, German or Australian colony.
The Sorcery Act of 1971, passed while PNG was still under Australian control, says that anyone “acting, or who believe they are acting, under the influence of sorcery” should not be blamed for amoral conduct and “actions that would ordinarily be regarded as customary offenses may ... be regarded as excusable.”
According to the U.S. Library of Congress, the legislation tries to accommodate people’s cultural beliefs but makes it difficult to prosecute such accusations and related killings under the country’s criminal codes.
"To remove the mentality of sorcery, the CLRC is proposing to have the act repealed in its entirety so that such cases of murder can only be dealt with under the criminal justice system," Poponawa said, according to the Malaysian National News Agency. "This will classify anyone who kills another person in retaliation for sorcery-related deaths as a murder suspect."