The people of Papua New Guinea (PNG) have a deep dedication to family, intense connections with the land and a strong belief in spirits. The belief in black magic is very strong, so when unexplained deaths or misfortune occur it's often blamed on sanguma. Sanguma is the pidgin word which can be broadly used to describe what people in the west might understand as witchcraft, spirits or black magic.
This belief in black magic has resulted in people being killed for nothing more than being accused as being a witch or alleged sorcerer. In February this year a 20 year old mother was killed for this reason. The story was reported around the world. The unfortunate woman was tortured, dumped on a rubbish tip and then set alight, all because she was accused of being sanguma. Since that time there have been many more deaths for similar reasons.
For many years, those who killed relied on the Sorcery Act 1971 (Sorcery Act) as a legal defence to their acts, arguing that they were provoked to kill because the other person was using black magic. Over the years the Sorcery Act received much criticism because it was often used to reduce the penalties contained under the PNG Criminal Code (Code). For example, murder could be reduced to manslaughter.
On 28 May 2013, while in Port Moresby, I read an article in the Post Courier newspaper which reported the PNG government had repealed the Sorcery Act and was making amendments to the Code. I remember thinking that the PNG government was really taking the issue of tackling crime seriously. The article went on to report that the Code would be amended to include the death penalty for serious criminal offences such as rape, robbery and murder. In addition, penalties for white collar crime would also be increased. Stealing of money between K5 million (AUD$2.4 million) and K9.99million (AUD$4.79 million) would attract a jail term of 50 years, without the possibility of parole. Whether you're in favour of or against the death penalty, it's clear the PNG government is now taking a hard line position on criminals.
Although the death penalty is currently in place for treason, piracy and wilful murder, there hasn't been a State execution for almost 60 years. I understand there are currently 14 people already on death row in PNG. If execution is to take place, it's likely that Correctional Services will carry out the executions.
Are the laws constitutional?
Although section 35 of the PNG Constitution provides that every person has the right to life, such rights are not guaranteed. The Constitution allows the right to take a life in certain circumstances; for example, following conviction of an offence for which the penalty of death is prescribed by law.
However, the Constitution does provide that a law may not be constituently valid if it is not reasonably justifiable. Section 39(1) of the Constitution provides that the proper regard for the rights and dignity of mankind should be considered in the light of the circumstances. Section 39(3) of the Constitution provides the Supreme Court or the National Court (Courts) may have regard to certain matters including, but not limited to:
- the Constitution generally
- the Charter of the United Nations
- the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
- laws, practices and judicial decisions and opinions in other countries
Ultimately, it's for the Courts to decide if the new laws are reasonably justifiable or not.
The PNG government should be commended for their actions in attempting to deal with these issues by repealing the Sorcery Act. With regard to the reported amendments to the Code, we must remember that PNG is an independent sovereign nation. PNG is dealing with its own law and order issues in its own way. Any legislative amendments made by the PNG Parliament are made by a democratically elected government. Although some people may not like the death penalty it is still the decision of an elected government which represents the people of PNG.