Sunday, March 22, 2009

Witch Hunting in Gambia

I find the possibility of government regulation of magical practices disturbing enough, but last week in Gambia the world saw what happens when government forces team up with self-proclaimed witch hunters - massive persecution on a scale that is extreme even for Africa.

Around a thousand suspected witches were rounded up, drugged, and forced to confess to practicing witchcraft. Amnesty International believes that most of the victims were released after less than a week, but the crackdown by the Gambian government does not appear to be over. It remains to be seen how many more people will be hunted down and arrested.

Most victims were held for three to five days and all are believed to have been released, Amnesty spokeswoman Eliane Drakopoulos told The Associated Press. But many have been terrorized by the campaign and fear it could spread, she said.

The dictatorial regime of Gambian President Yahya Jammeh initiated the mass arrests not for any public safety reason or even because of unrest but because he believed that witches had attacked his family.

Authorities began inviting "witch doctors," who combat witches, to come from nearby Guinea soon after the death earlier this year of the president's aunt. Jammeh "reportedly believes that witchcraft was used in her death," the London-based rights group said.

Apparently in Gambia a "witch doctor" is not a magician but a witch hunter. Whatever they call themselves, their tactics are reminiscent of the Inquisitions of Europe during the Middle Ages.

Since then, "witch doctors" — accompanied by police, soldiers, intelligence agents and Jammeh's personal guards — have forcibly taken about 1,000 alleged witches from their villages and spirited them to secret locations, Amnesty said. About 300 of them were taken to Jammeh's personal farm in his native Kanilai, east of the capital, the group said.

Oddly enough, Jammeh is apparently some sort of a magician himself, though of course when you're the one in power the authorities don't come knocking on your door to arrest you.

In 2007, Jammeh declared he had discovered a cure for AIDS and began treating patients inside the presidential palace, using herbs and incantations.

Amnesty International has called for a stop to the persecutions and continues to work toward bringing those responsible to justice.

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