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Sorcery and the Law in PNG

In following the legal news of the different jurisdictions that I cover, it is particularly interesting to see a country’s key local issues and the attempts made to address them through laws and other mechanisms.  Often these issues, and the approaches to resolving them, are intricately linked to a country’s history, geography, and culture.  One such issue that I’ve read about is that of killings of people in Papua New Guinea (PNG) due to their being suspected of practicing witchcraft.

Following reports of a number of incidents in recent years involving the murder of people accused of sorcery, the PNG government is currently looking at whether and how to repeal or amend the Sorcery Act 1971 to make the law more enforceable and to help the courts deal with cases appropriately.  I found the preamble to this legislation so interesting that I would like to share it with you in its entirety:

There is a widespread belief throughout the country that there is such a thing as sorcery and that sorcerers have extraordinary powers that can be used sometimes for good purposes but more often for bad ones, and because of this belief many evil things can be done and many people are frightened or do things that otherwise they might not do.

Some kinds of sorcery are practised not for evil purposes but for innocent ones and it may not be necessary for the law to interfere with them, and so it is necessary for the law to distinguish between evil sorcery and innocent sorcery.

There is no reason why a person who uses or pretends or tries to use sorcery to do, or to try to do, evil things should not be punished just as if sorcery and the powers of sorcerers were real, since it is just as evil to do or to try to do evil things by sorcery as it would be to do them, or to try to do them, in any other way.

Sometimes some people may act, or may believe that they are acting, under the influence of sorcery to such an extent that–

(a) their conduct may not be morally (and should not be legally) blameworthy; or

(b) actions that would ordinarily be regarded as customary offences may, in traditional social groups, be regarded as excusable or capable of being compensated for.

There is a danger that any law that deals fully with sorcery may encourage some evil-intentioned people to make baseless or merely spiteful or malicious accusations that their enemies are sorcerers solely to get them into trouble with other people, and this is a thing that the law should prevent.

The legislation therefore tries to acknowledge and accommodate the cultural beliefs of many people, while at the same time attempting to deal with the most negative aspects of the practice of sorcery – the threats, intimidation, and fear that may be utilized by sorcerers, as well as the harm that can result when people accuse others of using witchcraft.  The current provision that deals with this latter issue states:

10. FALSE REPORT OF SORCERY, ETC.

(1) This section does not apply in cases where the sorcery involved or allegedly involved is innocent sorcery only.

(2) The Defamation Act 1962 does not apply to or in relation to an offence against Subsection (3) or (4).

(3) A person who (except in the course of, or for the purpose of the institution of, legal proceedings or in any other case in which such an accusation or threat is privileged or excused by law) falsely accuses, to a third person, or threatens to accuse another person of–

(a) being or of having been a sorcerer; or
(b) performing or having performed an act of sorcery; or
(c) having been concerned in or a party to an act of sorcery,

is guilty of an offence.

(4) A person who spreads a false report that another person–

(a) is a sorcerer or performs or has performed an act of sorcery; or
(b) is or has been concerned in, or a party to, an act of sorcery,

is guilty of an offence.

Penalty: Imprisonment for a term not exceeding one year.

Of course, the torture and/or killing of a person who is labeled a sorcerer is likely to constitute an offense under the Criminal Code Act 1974, but it appears that – for various reasons – both the accusations and the killings have been difficult to prevent and punish under the existing laws.  This has led to concern being expressed at the international level, including by UN bodies.

The government asked the Constitutional and Law Reform Commission to review the sorcery laws in 2009.  The Commission last examined the laws in the late 1970s, but didn’t make any recommendations for change before the project ended.  The aim of the new review is to “assess and determine the effectiveness of this law in terms of the existing offences and penalties, as well as the defences and mitigating considerations that are available under the sorcery laws and identify problems in the enforcement.”

"Natives aid Allied drive in New Guinea jungles." (Source: Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division)

The Commission has now released an issues paper on the subject and will start a nationwide consultation process in order to come up with solutions and make recommendations for how the problem could be addressed.

Papua New Guinea is a fascinating country to read and learn about.  Some interesting facts include:

  • There are perhaps as many as 860 indigenous languages spoken (around one-tenth of the world’s total languages).
  • Around 80 percent of the population live in rural areas, and “many tribes in the isolated mountainous interior have little contact with one another, let alone with the outside world, and live within a non-monetarised economy dependent on subsistence agriculture.”
  • The country (or parts of it) has previously been governed or administered by the UK, Germany, and finally Australia (until independence in 1975).
  • Aspects of the legal system and different laws reflect various elements of British, Australian, and even New Zealand laws, while customary laws are also of great significance.  The judicial structures involve national courts as well as a large number of village courts that may operate in different ways, including through the use of informal dispute resolution processes.

The Law Library’s collection contains a number of books relating to Papua New Guinea’s laws, including reports of the Constitutional and Law Reform Commission, books on the legal system, and copies of old colonial laws that applied before independence.

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