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Witch Burnings: Very Much a Current Practice and Grounds for Asylum

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By: Lusine Lisyanova*

When one sees the words “witch burnings,” it is typically in a novel or a history book about the Dark Ages or 17th century Salem. In such settings, it is easy to imagine angry mobs gathered in the heart of town, burning a witch at the stake. However, the reality is that witch burnings are an ongoing practice. Just this past Monday, an accused witch was burned in a rural area of Papua New Guinea, where many of the locals blame unexplained hardship and troubles on witchcraft.

According to Tia Belau[1], the Palauan national newspaper, “A mob stripped, tortured, and bound a woman accused of witchcraft, then burned her alive in front of hundreds of horrified witnesses in a Papua New Guinea town. […] Kepari Leniata, a 20-year-old mother, had been accused of sorcery by relatives of a 6-year-old boy who died in a hospital on Tuesday. She was tortured with a hot iron rod, bound, doused in gasoline, and then set alight on a pile of car tires and trash….” Onlookers and the few police officers that were present were reported to have been shocked by the event unfolding before their eyes, but were powerless to stop it.

Papua New Guinea is one of many countries where witches continue to be hunted. The unfortunate souls who are singled out as witches are very often mercilessly persecuted for the rest of their lives. This persecution serves as grounds for accused witches to apply for asylum. In order to be eligible for asylum, one must prove that they cannot live in their country of nationality due to persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. In cases where individual are labeled as witches, they become part of that social group, and are persecuted because of it. The lawyers at BOILA have tried two such cases – one before the Asylum Office, and one before the Immigration Court. In both cases the accused witches were from Cameroon, and both were granted asylum in the United States. While they can spend the rest of their lives free from fear of persecution, many individuals remain whose lives will end as abruptly and violently as Kepari Leniata’s did.

[1] Tia Belau, Accused witch burned alive in Papua New Guinea.  Volume 22, Issue 12. February 11, 2013. | image source

*Lusine Lisyanova is the Communications Coordinator at Beach-Oswald Immigration Law Associates, P.C.

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