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15 Oct 2010 07:50
Dozens of people in Malawi, most of them elderly women, have been jailed for up to six years with hard labour for practising witchcraft.
Campaigners say they will call on president Bingu wa Mutharika to release the 86 prisoners since witchcraft is not a crime under Malawian law.
Most of the group are elderly women accused by children of teaching them witchcraft. Belief in the practice is widespread in the impoverished Southern African country.
George Thindwa, spokesperson for the Association of Secular Humanism, called for the women to be freed immediately because they had committed no crime.
“We are intervening in this matter because we are concerned we still have prisons in Malawi [with] people being accused of being witches,” he told the BBC’s Network Africa programme.
“The courts were wrong 100%, [and] the police, to actually accommodate cases.”
Thindwa said the women were vulnerable and their convictions had taken place with undue haste.
Last year the government bowed to public pressure by setting up a committee to investigate criminalising the practice.
Malawi’s public prosecutions office told the BBC that 11 cases were brought under the witchcraft act in the last month. This led to the conviction of 61 elderly women, seven elderly men and 18 younger relatives of the other accused. They received prison sentences of between four and six years.
Justice minister George Chaponda has claimed that a person can only be found guilty of practising witchcraft if they confessed to being a witch. But the BBC reported that the records showed all the suspects had pleaded not guilty.
Thindwa added: “I’m happy the minister has invited anybody with evidence to come forward. We have a complete dossier of the cases we are disputing. We’ll take the dossier to his office immediately.”
Earlier this year Mutharika pardoned Malawi’s first openly gay couple after a court sentenced them to 14 years’ imprisonment.
An increase in allegations of witchcraft has been noted in parts of Central and West Africa, with penalties including ostracisation, violence or execution. A recent report by Unicef found that tens of thousands of children, some as young as four, are being accused of the practice. - guardian.co.uk
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