- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 8, 2002

BANGUI, Central African Republic The selection of sticks belonging to Martin Nagoagoumi, a "witchcraft" detective, does not bode well for Stephanie as she stands accused of sorcery.

Stacked under dusty scales of justice in the police station of the Central African Republic's capital are long, thin sticks for beating children, as well as metal poles with flattened tops and a wooden beam punched with nails for adults who refuse to "confess."

Stephanie, 13, an orphan, shook at the sight of the weapons as she explained to the detective how a neighbor told her that the soup she had eaten contained a human heart and that now she, like her neighbor, possessed supernatural powers.

She said she followed the woman to the villa of a presidential guard, situated against a mile-long stretch of waterfalls at Boali.

They were to enter the grounds "transformed as cats" and perform spells. But the soldier woke up, made them confess and drove them to Bangui, Stephanie said.

"I know that it's not a good thing to try and kill someone. But I trusted this woman because she is a friend of my aunt," she said.

No relatives have brought food or clothes to the police station for Stephanie; she lives off food given to her by the other inmates.

The Bangui police station has a team of detectives who specialize in sorcery.

They are injected routinely with "vaccinations" of herbs prepared by witch doctors. The herbs are believed to make the police immune to spells.

They say this is necessary because the number of people practicing witchcraft is rising.

Hundreds of women, men and children in the Central African Republic are charged every year with practicing witchcraft, a crime punishable by execution or imprisonment.

"We know that many people are dying of AIDS, and so not all cases relating to this disease are the result of witchcraft. But we are seeing an increase in the problem," said Jean Guenganno, the head of police in Bangui.

The Health Ministry says more than 17 percent of the country's population carries HIV. AIDS deaths often are attributed to sorcery rather than unprotected sex or transfusions of infected blood.

In a cell next to Stephanie's, Ermine Qualigon, 70, said she buried a piece of her daughter-in-law's miscarried baby in the hope of making the woman infertile.

"My son's wife never gave me any food. When my son and her had meat, they only gave me soup," she said.

Her son, a telephone technician, described to a police officer how his wife became mysteriously thin. He said his mother had "eaten" her flesh.

Blaise Damagoa, 13, also accused of witchcraft, said he ate a neighbor's cake and a woman later told him it contained a human heart and that he now could make people sick by touching them.

"My manner has changed. My aunt calls me to go to the field, but I refuse. I refused to go to school. I told my brother what had happened after he had beaten me up. He then reported me to the police," he said.

Children accused of witchcraft are forced to share cells with adults. Food and medical care are not provided.

Teenage girls accused of the crime, whether found guilty or not, usually come out of custody pregnant, having been raped repeatedly by the male prisoners.

Ministry of Justice officials say rehabilitation of the prison built by French colonizers in 1947 will separate inmates and help ensure more humane treatment, especially for women and children. Because food will be provided, locals have renamed the prison "the cuisine" or "the kitchen."

The Central African Republic's legal system recognizes witchcraft as a crime. Many African tribes have believed in witchcraft for centuries, a practice preceding colonization and the spread of religion.

In the courts, "truth" herbs are used to make suspects "confess."

Because spells often involve burying bits of clothing, snipped fabric is dangled before the jury as evidence.

A name cried out by a sick person in his or her sleep, after taking a witch doctor's herbs, is believed to be a sure way of identifying a "witch."

A few skeptics in Bangui say jealousy and rivalry are at the heart of most witchcraft cases.

"[The culture] exists because Africans believe in supernatural spirits that cannot be controlled, but certain people are given the gift to communicate with these powers. Africans believe there is no such thing as an accident," explains Ambrose Balze, a sociologist at Bangui University.

"A person's misdeeds or spells put on him or her are behind any misfortune," he says.

Human rights lawyers in Bangui, despite working in plush Western-style offices and attending human rights conferences abroad, refuse to dismiss the powers of sorcery.

Heads of state also are firm believers in the practice. The capital is strewn with the abandoned grand residences of former presidents. Many incoming leaders, fearing the power of spirits, have built new abodes.

"We are pushing for fair trials of those accused. Too often, citizens take the law into their own hands and trials do not actually take place," says Matthias Morouba of the Human Rights Observatory in Bangui.

"In any case, witchcraft is so widespread that campaigning to abolish the legal recognition of the crime is pointless," he adds.

In M'baiki, a large town in the southwest, several women accused of witchcraft recently were buried alive. Others have been executed or seen their houses burned to the ground.

But moves to provide fair trials and rehabilitate the prison may be too late for Stephanie, who is due to appear in court soon.

"I need my mother," she says as she washes her face at the police station and tries to ignore the stares of the soldiers.

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