Every year, hundreds of people in the Central African Republic are convicted of witchcraft. One man, who received a 4-year sentence, says his case highlights some of the failures of the country’s judicial system.
Ange Mberkoulat was convicted of witchcraft after his village chief accused him of trying to kill a relative. He is officially a convict but is serving his sentence outside jail because of lack of resources in prisons.Ange says he was accused falsely. To make things worse, arsonists allied to the chief burned down his house and beat up his wife. He and his family of three have since moved in with his sister-in-law.
The Central African Republic has endured several coups since independence in 1960 and fighting between rebels and government forces in the north has forced about 300,000 people from their homes. The political situation remains unstable despite disarmament programmes and a new national unity government in 2009.
Human rights activists say judicial corruption and abuse of prisoners are a problem. Witchcraft is a criminal offence here and is even punishable by execution in cases of homicide. The manner in which investigations are carried out is also often questionable.
State Prosecutor Kongo Parfait explains it like this: “Sometimes we directly consult a sorcerer, who will put a product into the eyes of a person who has no relation to the victim and who can then determine where the fetishes of the accused have been hidden. Once the accused is found, he has to unearth the fetishes. Sometimes they will be found in the field or under the bed of the person and so on. In general, those are the indications.”
The Catholic mission in Bozoum, about 300km from the capital Bangui, often intervenes in witchcraft cases.
''They often accuse the weakest people — people who live alone, the ones who will not cause a lot of trouble and against whom, unfortunately, you can do whatever you like,” said mission priest Father Aurelio Gazzera, who helped rescue Ange from an angry mob.
The UN is also trying to improve the situation by training residents about their human rights and raising awareness of legal assistance.
A UN study found that in the local prison, more than half of those held were accused of witchcraft.
A few weeks after Ange recounted his experience to Reuters Africa Journal, he was imprisoned again.