Says statutory laws not adequate to prosecute cases of alleged witchcraft.
The head of the traditional council of chiefs in Nimba County, Paramount Chief Peter Barlon, has described witchcraft activities in the county as “alarming” and getting out of hand. He said it deserves the intervention of the Legislature to enact a law that can prosecute perpetrators and ensure justice for the victims.
Speaking to reporters in Nimba on Saturday, October 6, Chief Barlon said there “are several witchcraft cases that have resulted in the deaths of many people in the county and for which the alleged perpetrators go free, because there is no law in the constitution to prosecute.”
He said chiefs are not authorized to administer “sassywood,” a trial by ordeal process that was used to administer “traditional laws” in the past. He said magistrates who are using “statutory laws” are not willing to prosecute such cases, because of the difficulty of securing evidence against those accused.
“There is a law to prosecute those found to be involved in witchcraft activities, but the magistrate and police are not willing to consider cases of witchcraft whenever a case is taken to them,” he said.
He added that presently in Nimba County, there is a group of men said to be involved in “medicine” (witchcraft activities). According to him, they wear amulets said to possess mystical powers and anyone who dares risk having illicit relations with their women could invite a death spell cast by mystical chants.
“This new witchcraft activity is alarming. There are two witchcraft activities known as ‘Kparsia and Zoebayoo,’ which are also deadly,” he said. Kparsia and Zoebayoo, according to information, are invoked whenever those who possesses the mystical chanting powers touches a subject’s shoulder with their left hand, the subject immediately falls sick and die within two to three days.
Chief Barlon said the people who are involved in the practice otherwise referred to as “medicine” for the wrist, have confessed openly to killing people with such powers, which also includes chanting. “The government continues to say witchcraft activity is not scientific and, therefore, perpetrators cannot undergo punishment as compared to those who kill physically,” he said.
“We are calling on the government or our lawmakers to pass a law that deals with cases emanating from witchcraft,” he said.
Individuals who confess that they are involved in witchcraft have usually done so openly. Early this year, local authorities in the Zoe Geh Statutory District, arrested several men who were allegedly involved in witchcraft that led to the death of two persons. “Children of young ages have been confessing, pointing to the elderly for initiating them,” the chief said.
“Our lives are in danger from these people,” said Clan Chief Patrick Baryou of Fro Clan.
“A fellow was arrested with a cow tail, and said that anyone to who he shows the tail will immediately ‘get dry’ (shrink in size) and die,” he said. “They sometimes put something on a chair for their victim to sit on and which can lead to the person’s death.”
However, contrary to Chief Barlon’s claim that there is a law that empowers local communities to deal with “sassywood,” or trial by ordeal (TBO), the Daily Observer notes that the administration of “sassywood” was banned in Liberia more than a century ago.
The Supreme Court of Liberia first outlawed the practice in 1916 in a case in which a number of individuals, accused of being witches, refused to submit to sassywood (a form of TBO that involves drinking a poisonous brew that often results in death) and the matter was brought before the Supreme Court on appeal. The Court ruled against TBO on the basis that it violated a suspect’s right against self-incrimination (a right protected under the Liberian 1847 Constitution).
In an opinion delivered by the Supreme Court in 1916, it said, “While it is provided that the native and district courts shall administer the native customary law, we cannot admit the legality of a proceeding which is evidently intended to extort a confession from the accused, and which is in conflict with the organic law of the state, which declares that ‘no person shall be compelled to give evidence against himself.’ … Any custom, which panders to the superstition of the natives of the country is, in our opinion, contrary to the genius of our institutions and should, therefore, be discouraged.” (Jedah v Horace (1916) 2 LLR 63)
In 1940, in an appeal by five individuals convicted by a circuit court of murdering a person suspected of stealing a goat, the Court again upheld the ban; it held that TBO was “unconstitutional and illegal.” (Tenteah v Republic of Liberia (1940) 7 LLR 63).
The Court noted: “It would appear that the defendant died as a result of the doing of the appellants of an illegal act; for, defendant having been accused of stealing a goat, no effort was made to ascertain the truthfulness or falsity of the action by any legal evidence, but rather resorted to the illegal and abominable method of trial by ordeal, which this court has repeatedly held to be unconstitutional and therefore illegal.”
For clarity, trial by ordeal (sassywood) takes different forms, depending on the circumstances. It may be used on a person suspected of a crime to induce confession; on a suspect or witness to make sure that the person tells the truth (much like testifying under oath); or on a person suspected of being a witch as an interrogation technique or as a cure if he/she has already admitted to being one.
The types of TBO carried out in Liberia span a range of acts (including drinking regular water or performing a simple task); painful exercises (for instance, dipping a hand in boiling oil or putting a hot metal object against the skin); and deadly acts (such as consuming dangerous poison).
The prevalence of TBO has been attributed to the unwillingness of the executive body to enforce the ban and its active participation in its routine violation. The typical example cited to support this indictment is the fact that the Hinterland Regulations, which permit some forms of TBO to be sanctioned, remain in force in violation of the ban on TBO.
Under these Regulations, the Ministry of Internal Affairs routinely licenses “Ordeal Doctors” to carry out TBO. Although forms of TBO that pose danger to life are said to have been banned by the executive body (in other words, the executive body decided to start enforcing an already existing ban partially), a recent United Nations (UN) report showed that Liberian authorities have continued to encourage their use.
For example, former President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf granted presidential clemency to 14 individuals convicted of murder for a death they caused in the course of a TBO. Its prevalence is also undoubtedly attributed to other factors.
One such factor is cultural: it is widely believed that TBO is a fair and quick method for dispensing justice in which both the administrators of the trial and the tools used are deemed to possess divine powers for which there is no substitute.
This is particularly true in cases of witchcraft. Another reason why the practice endures despite a long-standing ban is a practical one. Formal institutions of justice are inaccessible in most parts of the country and for most people, TBO is the only available means of resolving a conflict.