Hex Appeal

Graeme Wood, Atlantic, June 2010

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By some estimates, about 40 percent of the cases in the Central African court system are witchcraft prosecutions. (Drug offenses in the U.S., by contrast, account for just 12 percent of arrests.) In Mbaiki–where Pygmies, who are known for bewitching each other, make up about a tenth of the population–witchcraft prosecutions exceed 50 percent of the case load, meaning that most alleged criminals there are suspected of doing things that Westerners generally regard as impossible.

I went to the front of the witch line and asked Abdulaye Bobro, the chief judge, what the punishment was for casting spells. {snip}

{snip} [He] found the section on PCS, or the “practice of charlatanism and sorcery,” and let me read along as he quoted from memory the section that dictates a decade or more in jail and a nominal fine for engaging in witchcraft. In practice the penalties were significantly less, because the town had insufficient funds to maintain a jail. {snip}

The classic study of witchcraft in Africa occurred among the Azande, who inhabit the eastern edge of the Central African Republic. The anthropologist Edward E. Evans-Pritchard found that the Azande attributed a staggering range of misfortunes–infected toes, collapsed granary roofs, even bad weather–to meddling by witches. Nothing happened by chance, only as an effect of spell-casting by a wicked interloper. That sentiment remains widespread among Central Africans, who demand that the law reflect the influence of witchcraft as they understand it. {snip}

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{snip} [Most] lawyers I consulted there favored keeping the law intact, although they admitted that it fits uneasily in a modern legal system. “The problem is that in a witchcraft case, there is usually no evidence,” said Bartolom√© Goroth, a lawyer in Bangui, who recently defended (unsuccessfully) a coven of Pygmies who had been accused of murder-by-witchcraft in Mbaiki. Goroth said the trials generally ended with an admission of guilt by an accused witch in exchange for a modest sentence. I asked how one determined guilt in cases where the alleged witches denied the charges. “The judge will look at them and see if they act like witches,” Goroth said, specifying that “acting like a witch” entailed behaving “strangely” or “nervously” in court. His principal advice to clients, he said, was to act normally and refrain from casting any spells in the courtroom.

Goroth argued that the legal system could not ignore a social fact as firmly embedded as witchcraft is in the republic. And every other lawyer I met not only supported its criminalization, but seemed to believe in the reality of shape-shifting and killing with magic spells. More than one pointed to the elbow when referring to witchcraft, indicating the site in the body where sorcery is said to reside.

I visited Mbaiki’s sole foreign nongovernmental organization, an Italian group called COOPI that exists to promote human rights and the rule of law. {snip}

They acknowledged that the rights of the accused are violated regularly in witchcraft prosecutions, because the charge carries enormous pressure to confess. But they, too, supported keeping the laws on the books, for pragmatic reasons: if people thought witches could hex with impunity, mobs would simply seize the alleged offenders, bring them to a pit, and bury them alive. {snip}

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