Witchcraft and sorcery are still punished by the death penalty in the 21st century

In the 21st century, several countries still punish “witchcraft” and “sorcery” by the death penalty, often imposed on women and children
Witchcraft and sorcery are still punished by the death penalty in the 21st century
A self-proclaimed witch - Photo: Shannon Stapleton/REUTERS
31/10/2018
14:32
Gabriel Moyssen
Mexico City
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In the 21st century, several countries still punish “witchcraft” and “sorcery” by the death penalty, often imposed on women and children in a dark reminder of the challenges that the cause of human rights and tolerance is facing around the world.

It has been a long time since a woman was executed on charges of witchcraft or sorcery in the Western world—Anna Göldi was beheaded in 1782 in Glarus, Switzerland, although the official accusation spoke of “poisoning”—yet in our collective imaginary persists the Salem witch trials, a series of hearings, and prosecutions in colonial Massachusetts between 1692 and 1693.

At that time, more than 200 people were accused of witchcraft, 19 of whom were found guilty and executed by hanging (14 women and five men).

One other man was pressed to death for refusing to plead, and at least five other people died in jail.

It is likely that the Salem witch trials are part of the contemporary culture because of its absurd and unfair character, that evidenced the worst excesses of politically-induced mass hysteria, isolationism, and religious extremism.

Similar abuses, however, can be found today in Islamic nations where the laws are inspired by the sharia or Koranic legislation and sorcery allegations are used against women, ethnic groups, foreign workers, and other minorities.

Saudi Arabia’s religious police department, for instance, has an official anti-witchcraft unit that it dispatches to catch sorcerers and break their spells.

As the New England witch hunters of yore, those in Saudi Arabia use magic as a convenient excuse to silence people.

Accusations of sorcery have been leveled against women working as domestics for Saudi families who charge their employers with sexual assault, according to International Amnesty.

In one particular case, a Lebanese television presenter of a popular fortune-telling program was arrested on a pilgrimage to Mecca in 2010.

Though sentenced to death by the strict Wahhabi authorities, after pressure from his government and human rights groups he was freed by the Saudi Supreme Court, which found that he had not harmed anyone.

In Tanzania, nearly 600 elderly women were killed in 2012 on charges of witchcraft.

The Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life found a “strong and pervasive belief” in magic among Tanzanians. It sometimes leads to reverence rather than murder.

One woman who claims to be a witch charges between USD $20 and USD $120 for services including medical cures and exorcisms—in an African country where the average income is under two dollars a day.

Hallucinations and pain

Also in Africa, Gambia’s dictator Yahya Jammeh (1996-2017) rounded up, tortured and executed his citizens under the pretext of hunting for witches.

Amnesty International estimates that at least six people died after Jammeh´s minions forced them to drink a mixture of unknown substances. Dozens more hallucinated and suffered severe and lingering pain.

According to news reports, at least 20 inmates of the women’s jail at Bimbo, in Bangui, Central African Republic, were accused earlier this year of charlatanism and witchcraft, crimes included in the country’s penal code.

Witchcraft represents a problem for Central African lawmakers. It is always something mystical and this complicates the judge’s ruling,” explained Nadia Carine Fornel Poutou, President of the Women Law Association in Bangui.

“A particular category of people, the most vulnerable, women, children, and the elderly are always accused of witchcraft,” she added.

The collapse of traditional societies, aggravated by civil conflict in the country since 2013, allows women to compete with men and challenge the patriarchal order, turning them into “social targets,” said Louisa Lombard, an anthropologist in Bangui.

For its part, around 150 women accused of witchcraft are tortured and murdered each year in India, a country where superstitions are still prevalent in remote and tribal areas.

Animal sacrifices practiced by followers of the Kali goddess and religious currents such as Tantrism are made in order to obtain better harvests, prevent diseases, and drive away evil spirits.

The followers of occultist traditions, such as the Orkas or Mudkatwa, bury human heads in paddy fields for better rains and harvest, reported in 2015 the Indian daily Hindustan Times.

Ajay Kumar Thakur, the officer-in-charge of Palkhot police station in the northeastern state of Jharkhand, said after the beheading of a 55-year-old tribal man during an alleged human sacrifice that “nobody in this area dares complain about the Orkas. Most villagers are scared of this group that roams habitats just before the monsoons.”

Many blame the turn to the occult on the increasing economic gap between rural and urban India, in particular, the spiraling debts of cotton and tobacco farmers, linked with high costs of hybrid seeds and pesticides, that has led to record numbers of farmers committing suicide.

Sanal Edamaruku, President of the Indian Rationalist Associations, said human sacrifice affects most of northern India. “Hundreds of millions cannot read or write, yet often seek refuge from life’s realities through astrology or the magical arts of shamans. Unfortunately, these people focus their attention on society’s weaker members, mainly women, and children who are easier to handle and kidnap.”

Editing by Sofía Danis
More by Gabriel Moyssen

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