Assailants stripped, tortured and bound a woman accused of witchcraft, then burned her alive in front of hundreds of witnesses in a Papua New Guinea town, police said Friday after one of the highest profile sorcery-related murders in this South Pacific island nation.
Some of the hundreds of bystanders took photographs of Wednesday’s brutal slaying. Grisly pictures were published on the front pages of the country’s biggest circulating newspapers, The National and Post-Courier. The prime minister, police and diplomats condemned the killing.
Kepari Leniata, a 20-year-old who had a child, had been accused of sorcery by relatives of a 6-year-old boy who died in the hospital the day before, police spokesman Dominic Kakas said.
She was tortured with a hot iron rod, bound, doused in gasoline, then set alight on a pile of car tires and trash in the Western Highlands provincial capital of Mount Hagen, Kakas said.
Deputy Police Commissioner Simon Kauba on Friday blasted Mount Hagen investigators by phone for failing to make a single arrest, Kakas said.
The public were apparently not cooperating with police and police carrying out the investigation were not working hard enough, Kakas said.
“He was very, very disappointed that there’s been no arrest made as yet,” Kakas said.
“The incident happened in broad daylight in front of hundreds of eyewitnesses and yet we haven’t picked up any suspects yet. He was very, very curious about that and he blasted the investigators on the phone,” Kakas added.
Kakas described the victim’s husband as the “prime suspect.” The husband had fled the province, Kakas said. Kakas said he did not know if there were a relationship between the husband and the dead boy’s family.
Sorcery has traditionally been countered by sorcery in Papuan New Guinean culture. But responses to sorcery allegations have become increasingly violent in recent years.
Kakas said the death was the first sorcery-related murder in Papua New Guinea in a year.
Police Commissioner Tom Kulunga described the murder as “shocking and devilish.”
“We are in the 21st century and this is totally unacceptable,” Commissioner Kulunga said in a statement.
He suggested courts be established to deal with sorcery allegations, as an alternative to villagers dispensing justice.
Prime Minister Pete O’Neill said he had instructed police to use all available manpower to bring the killers to justice.
“It is reprehensible that women, the old and the weak in our society should be targeted for alleged sorcery or wrongs that they actually have nothing to do with,” O’Neill said.
The U.S. Embassy in the national capital Port Moresby issued a statement calling for a sustained international partnership to enhance anti-gender-based violence laws throughout the Pacific.
The embassy of Australia, Papua New Guinea’s colonial ruler until independence in 1975 and now its biggest foreign aid donor, said “We join … all reasonable Papua New Guineans in looking forward to the perpetrators being brought to justice.”