When Raphael Kogun’s uncle became gravely ill in 2006, his family’s immediate response was to recruit a witch doctor in the hope of finding out who was responsible for having brought such a curse upon him. The blame was eventually directed towards a middle-aged couple from Kogun’s village in Papua New Guinea, and the family “ran after them and . . . chopped their heads off,” according to Kogun. “I felt sorry for them but they were witches, they deserved to die. If they were still alive they could hurt people with their magic.”
Two of his brothers were subsequently arrested, but witnesses, having felt too terrified to testify, caused the eventual collapse of the case.
Under similar circumstances in April 2014, a manic crowd from six villages in Papua New Guinea used axes, knives, and bows and arrows to murder seven people in Sakiko village, where the latest victims of sorcery allegations had sought refuge. The casualties included two children aged three and five, who were “wrenched from their mothers’ arms and chopped to pieces,” according to the PNG Post Courier.
Despite 122 men having been involved and subsequently charged with the murders (97 of whom pleaded not guilty to wilful murder) during the “biggest sorcery-related court case in the country” in March, the motive behind the massacre was far from unheard of. Papua New Guinea has long since been infamous for the overwhelming possession of superstition among its citizens, as well as instances of cannibalism, black magic, and sorcery.
Negative attitudes toward witchcraft have always been particularly widespread: a large portion of Papua New Guinean citizens– particularly those in rural areas– find it difficult to accept that sickness, accidents or death have been brought on by natural causes. Instead, these are usually thought to have been consequences of black magic.
James Tanis, President of the country from 2009 to 2010, has long-since been staunch in his view that the idea of sorcery is culturally engrained. “Sorcery is something . . . we hear from childhood,” he told the ABC. “The first thing that we hear from our mothers [is], ‘Don’t go there! Don’t eat that! Don’t do this! The sorcerer is out there!'”
Those accused of sorcery are considered to have deliberately caused misfortune through use of supernatural powers. They are usually punished by death, injury, exile, or destruction of property. Police reports reveal that victims have been buried alive, beheaded, choked to death, thrown over cliffs or into rivers or caves, axed, electrocuted, stoned, suffocated with smoke, forced to drink petrol, or shot.
In 2013, for instance, a group of men stripped 20 year old Kepari Leniata (who had been suspected of practicing witchcraft) naked and tortured her with a hot iron rod, before burning her alive on a pile of rubbish and car tyres at the Kerebug dump in Mount Hagen.
“When dozens of people have been killed after literal witch hunts, it’s clear that the government is not doing enough to protect its own citizens,” said Apolosi Bose, Amnesty International’s Pacific Islands researcher. “The police and judicial authorities have to step in immediately before another person faces this . . . vigilante violence.”
Following Leniata’s death, the United Nations warned of a “growing pattern” in sorcery killings. Her widely-reported case, coupled with the murder of women’s rights advocate Helen Rumbali (accused of witchcraft, tortured, and killed only months later), prompted Papua New Guinea’s government to repeal the 1971 Sorcery Act in 2013.
This Act allowed for more lenient sentences for those who argued that their victims were committing acts of sorcery, and elaborated under the “sorcery as provocation” subsection that an “act of sorcery may amount to a wrongful act or insult within the meaning of Section 266 of the Criminal Code 1974,” immaterial if it occurred “in the presence of the person allegedly provoked.”
To reinforce the fact that the intent may not have been harmful, however, the Sorcery Act used the notion of ‘innocent sorcery’, which is “protective only, or is not intended to produce . . . any harmful, unlawful or undue influence on any person.”
As Professor Richard Eves writes, some groups in Papua New Guinea even make a clear distinction between sorcery and innocent magic with separate language terms— “magic being deemed benevolent, and sorcery as malevolent.”
Ultimately, the turning of the tide against sorcery in the country can be credited to the rise and peak of news distribution and availability in a digital age. The greater media reportage has shed light on occult murders; even cases in smaller countries like Papua New Guinea. The burning of Kepari Leniata, for example, sparked both domestic and global outrage as a result of the extensive coverage.
What, then, does this mean for Papua New Guinea itself?
Change is already taking place: while the now-nullified Sorcery Act allowed citizens to easily point fingers at suspected practitioners of witchcraft as personal ‘scapegoats’ of sorts, recent challenges to the establishment and application of the country’s laws are marking a change in viewpoint. Such heavy stances against witchery may indeed be, as James Tanis stated, “culturally ingrained,” but recent events bring hope to the possibility that it may be a belief that will soon disappear— perhaps not, however, with the wave of a wand.
Cinnamone Winchester is a first year undergraduate student studying a Bachelor of Arts at the ANU.