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CSOs trash review of Witchcraft Act

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ADDRESSED STAKEHOLDERS—
Chinangwa

By Wezzie Gausi:

Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR) and Centre for the Development of People (Cedep) have trashed recommendations by the Special Law Commission on the Review of the Witchcraft Act of 1911.

Last week, the Special Law Commission on the Review of Witchcraft Act said the majority of Malawians believed that witchcraft existed and said there was a need for the law to acknowledge the same.

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But, in a joint statement released Monday, CHRR and Cedep say they find the recommendation to penalise witchcraft practices problematic.

CHRR Executive Director Michael Kaiyatsa observes that recommendations from the commission do not address the challenge of proving supernatural practices in a court of law.

He says, by definition, a witch or wizard is someone who secretly uses supernatural powers for nefarious purposes.

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“Assuming that the law is amended to criminalise the practice of witchcraft, there would be the difficult issue of evidence. Under the new law, persons suspected of practising witchcraft would face criminal charges.

“It is a good law practice that for one to be convicted of a criminal offence, the prosecution must have proven its case beyond reasonable doubt. However, witchcraft, as noted earlier, involves the use of supernatural powers. Therefore, proving the allegations would be very difficult in a court of law,” Kaiyatsa says.

Cedep Executive Director Gift Trapence urges the commission to provide clear guidance on how the issue of evidence would be handled if the practice of witchcraft were to be criminalised.

He says law reforms have to be based on solid facts and evidence, and not founded on mere beliefs or driven by panic and fear-mongering.

“In our view, this is impossible to do through material evidence and, therefore, prosecutions to prove that someone has practised witchcraft will have to rely on hearsay, circumstantial or confession evidence, which might compromise the accused’s right to access to justice and legal remedies as provided for in Section 41 of the Constitution,” Trapence says.

The two organisations have recommended that the prohibition of witchcraft accusations be maintained since accusations often act as a catalyst for acts of violence.

Last week, Chairperson of the Special Law Commission on the Review of Witchcraft Act retired Justice Robert Chinangwa said the commission recommends that, following the recognition of the existence of witchcraft, the practice should be criminalised.

The commission released its findings on Tuesday in Lilongwe at an event which was attended by Justice and Constitutional Affairs Minister Titus Mvalo, among others.

The Witchcraft Act of 1911 assumes that the act does not exist and makes it an offence to accuse someone of being a witch or wizard.

The commission found that “there is witchcraft or, at least, a belief in witchcraft” among Malawians.

“The commission concludes that it is not correct to argue that there is no witchcraft in Malawi for the sole reason that the practice is premised upon mere belief.

“Consequently, the commission concludes that the existence of Witchcraft should not be regarded as a doubtful but conclusive (thing),” Chinangwa said.

Mvalo said findings and recommendations were more reflective of Malawians’ belief in witchcraft.

“In my view, it will bring a change that, for once, people will know that if you are arrested on suspicion of witchcraft, there is a possibility of conviction and imprisonment.

“Hopefully that will scare people from indulging in this practice and bring law and order,” he said.

Currently, Malawi laws do not recognize the existence of witchcraft.

The report is expected to be submitted to the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs for presentation to Cabinet and, thereafter, submitted to Parliament as a government-sponsored bill.

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