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'A lot of hatred': Deadly witch hunts in Papua New Guinea linked to jealousy

Post Courier via AP, file

In this Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013 photo, bystanders watch as a woman accused of witchcraft is burned alive in the Western Highlands provincial capital of Mount Hagen in Papua New Guinea. The 20-year-old mother of one, Kepari Leniata was stripped naked by several assailants, tortured with a hot iron rod, bound, doused in gasoline, then set alight on a pile of car tires and trash.

CANBERRA, Australia -- On a tropical island in Papua New Guinea where most people live in huts, a mob armed with guns, machetes and axes stormed a wooden house by night. They seized Helen Rumbali and three female relatives, set the building on fire and took the women away to be tortured. Their alleged crime: Witchcraft.

After being repeatedly slashed with knives, Rumbali's older sister and two teenage nieces were released following negotiations with police. Rumbali, a 40-something former schoolteacher, was beheaded.

Her assailants claimed they had clear proof that Rumbali had used sorcery to kill another villager who recently died of sickness: The victim's grave bore the marks of black magic, and a swarm of fire flies apparently led witch hunters to Rumbali's home.

Violence linked to witch hunts is an increasingly visible problem in Papua New Guinea — a diverse tribal society of more than 800 languages and 7 million people who are mostly subsistence farmers. Experts say witch hunting appears to be spreading to parts of the country where the ruthless practices never took place before.

There is no clear explanation for the apparent uptick in killings in parts of the South Pacific nation, and even government officials seem at a loss to say why this is happening. Some are arguing the recent violence is fueled not by the nation's widespread belief in black magic but instead by economic jealousy born of a mining boom that has widened the country's economic divide and pitted the haves against the have-nots.

"Jealousy is causing a lot of hatred," said Helen Hakena, chairwoman of the North Bougainville Human Rights Committee, which is based in the area Rumbali was killed. "People who are so jealous of those who are doing well in life, they resort to what our people believe in, sorcery, to kill them, to stop them continuing their own development."

She said the witchcraft accusation against Rumbali was just an excuse.

"That was definitely a case of jealousy because her family is really quite well off," Hakena said.

She said villagers were envious because Rumbali's husband and son had government jobs, they had a "permanent house" made of wood, and the family had tertiary educations and high social standing.

The United Nations has documented hundreds of cases of sorcery-related violence in Papua New Guinea in recent years and many more cases in remote areas are thought to have gone unreported. It found the attacks are often carried out with impunity.

Until last month, the country's 42-year-old Sorcery Act allowed for a belief in black magic to be used as a partial legal defense for killing someone suspected of inflicting harm through sorcery. The government repealed the law in response to the recent violence.

"There's no doubt that there are really genuine beliefs there and in some circumstances that is what is motivating people: the belief that if they don't kill this person, then this person is going to continue to bring death and misfortune and sickness on their village," said Miranda Forsyth, a lawyer at Australian National University who has studied the issue.

But she said recent cases in Papua New Guinea don't appear to be motivated by a genuine belief in the occult, but instead are a pretext under which the wealthy can be attacked by poorer neighbors, and, many times, get away with it.

She and other experts on witchcraft in the Melanesia region believe Papua New Guinea's newfound prosperity and the growing inequality in its traditionally egalitarian culture is a significant cause of the violence. Neighboring Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, where belief in black magic is also widespread, haven't seen the same level of extreme violence against accused witches.

The difference, they say, is that Papua New Guinea has had the fastest economic growth.

A wealth of mineral resources and natural gas has transformed the nation's long-stagnant economy into one of the world's fastest growing over the past decade, increasing on average almost 7 percent annually from 2007 to 2010. Growth peaked at 8.9 percent in 2011 before slowing to 8 percent last year.

The Asian Development Bank reported last year that Papua New Guinea has one of the highest levels of inequality, if not the highest, in the Asia-Pacific region.