Specialists from a range of fields have been working on a comprehensive plan aimed at preventing killings linked to sorcery, that will be presented to government.
Belief in sorcery or witchcraft is widespread in PNG, with even some well-educated Papua New Guineans convinced that supernatural powers can be used to harm or kill.
Speaker:Liam Fox, PNG correspondent
FOX: One interesting comment on the first day was people have been talking about the yeild sorcery, that it not only results in people being killed, because people believe that the person, the victim, is using sorcery or witchcraft to harm or kill, but the first day, a young man got up and said that he was utterly convinced that sorcery was real, that he'd seen an aircraft, a plane, made out of bush material, twigs and leaves and things like that. He'd seen one of those fly and that was a result of magic and that after they'd been discussing the brutal ways in which victims have been killed, he said that when witches or sorcerers are interrogated, that knives, where knives are used, knives can't penetrate their skin or can red hot iron bars. So these are the kinds of beliefs that people have.
EWART: Do you get the sense that as far as the government is concerned, that on the one hand, it needs to respect the beliefs of its own people and deal with that, but on the other hand, the level of attention that PNG has attracted in recent months over sorcery is something of an embarrassment for the government. It makes them look like a very backward country?
FOX: I don't think it's an embarrassment just for the government, but for the country in general. I mean that was one option raised by the head of the Australian aid program here, Stuart Schaefer, who said it wasn't just an issue about health, human rights and issues like that, but it was a reputational issue for Papua New Guinea as well.
As well as that, we heard from other speakers that sorcery and witchcraft here isn't just viewed as a negative thing, that it's also people can hire sorcerers for things like improving harvests and things like that and the hopes for a good year ahead. So that's the difficulty the government faces, not only deeply ingrained in Papua New Guinean culture, but there are some believed to positive aspects to it as well.
EWART: Now, I mentioned that there was the aim, part of the aim at least of the conference is to come with this comprehensive plan aimed at preventing future killings. I mean some might argue that there's a simple solution here, is that what is happening is a criminal act and you deal with that way. But I presume it's a little bit more complicated than that, because of the cultural implications?
FOX: Well yes, it's the cultural implications, but when dealing with something as a criminal act, you also need an effective police force, an effective court system and PNG does not have that. Indeed, ineffective police has been cited as one of the major issues and ineffective government services in general.
One Speaker said that he found in his long experience in being PNG, that belief in sorcery seemed to increased as effective government services decreased and that he particularly found it very strong, the belief in areas, remote areas, where there are no government services, no administrators, no police. And the other aspect is that people take the law into their own hands, whether it be practicing sorcery or killing those believed to be practicing sorcery, because there are no police around. And belief in sorcery doesn't just result in the murders of people who are believed to be practicing it, but also the dislocated of whole villages can result in large scale tribal fights as well. An effective police was cited to be one major factor contributing to this.
EWART: And regardless of whether or not any plan that is emerged from the conference moves things forward, that the mere fact of this conference has taken place and that this national debate is taking place, presumably that's being seen as a step in the right direction?
FOX: That's right and really this is the culmination of a lot of concerns throughout the year about this.
Earlier in the year, the event that really shocked everyone into action, that was the murder of a young woman on the streets of Mount Hagen. She was burnt alive. Her name was Kepari Leniata. She was burnt alive in front of a large crowd, after being accused of using sorcery. As I said a large crowd were there. They were all sort of looking on, taking pictures with their mobile phones, and those phones then spread the pictures that were taken were then spread through social media. It was on front pages of newspapers here, but also made it into newspapers around the world and there have been a couple of other very particularly gruesome sorcery killings since then and they in fact resulted in a protest called "The National House Cry". That was where the Prime Minister at the protest in Port Moresby announced that the government was going to move to implement the death penalty and make it apply to sorcery killings. So yes, this is the culmination of a year of particularly gruesome sorcery killings, though some of the people at this conference would have said that this is an ongoing issue. They can't particularly say whether there's been an increase sorcery killings or not. They've just always been present. Perhaps it's the fact that people now have mobile phones and can post photographs to social media that are becoming a bigger issue. But, then other experts have said that they believe the frequency and the level of violence is increasing.