January 5, 2023

Witchcraft representations and judicial treatment of the offence of Charlatanism and Witchcraft Practices in the Central African Republic

Central African Republic (the)Access to justice and developmentVictim's rightsWomen's rights

Pénalisation des Pratiques de charlatanisme et sorcellerie en République centrafricaine

Witchcraft, an omnipresent element of centrafrican culture and society

In the Central African Republic (CAR), witchcraft is omnipresent: it dominates and shapes the daily life of the population, especially in rural areas. Witchcraft representations, which are an integral part of Central African customs and practices, provide an explanatory framework for all life events: death, illness, accidents, professional or academic failures, etc. The successive crises that have shaken the country since 2013 have reinforced the use of witchcraft as an explanation for the diverse misfortunes the popluation has experienced. An increased involvment of religious bodies in the ‘fight’ against witchcraft has also been noted during that perido.

In the Central African Penal Code, Articles 149 and 150 condemn ‘charlatanism or witchcraft practices likely to disturb public order or harm people or property’, including practices that cause ‘serious injury or permanent disability’ or ‘death’. Accusations of witchcraft, based on these two vague and imprecise articles, are very common and frequently lead to an outburst of violence by popular vindictiveness against the accused person: exclusion, lynching, or even, in the worst case, brutal execution. These allegations are used to get rid of people who have become undesirable in the community and disproportionately affect the vulnerable and isolated, especially elderly women.

The judicial treatment of the offence of charlatanism and witchcraft practices

The legal vagueness surrounding charlatanism and witchcraft practices (CWP) is acknowledged by most actors in the Central African judiciary and is a breeding ground for arbitrary decision-making. Judges tend to rely on their own convictions and beliefs when dealing with witchcraft cases. Moreover, faced with the difficulty of providing material proof of an act of witchcraft, most judicial actors consider the confession of the accused person as the ultimate evidence, regardless of the motives of the accused in making the confession, which is often used for purposes of social appeasement and/or personal protection. Furthermore, social pressure from the community and the so-called protection of public order, which is invoked as a higher principle, have a strong influence on the judges’ decision-making and even divert the course of justice in order to satisfy the majority of the population.

Furthermore, judicial intervention is not in capacity to ensure the protection and reintegration of those accused of CWP. By prosecuting a person for CWP, the court attests to the reality of her or his witchcraft and the convicted person will remain vulnerable to further convictions and even further violence (even after release from prison). Justice also has the effect of formalising the omnipresence of the witchcraft risk, contributing to the effervescence of such types of discourse. In the event of an acquittal, the population, mostly distrustful of the judiciary, may seek justice for themselves, indirectly encouraged by the apparent passivity of judicial institutions in dealing with the violence inflicted on accused persons.

Action by ASF and its partners

Since 2021, thanks to the support of the European Union, ASF and its partners (Centre for the Promotion of Children’s Rights (CPDE), Organisation of Young Leaders for Development (OJLD), Maison de l’enfant et de la femme pygmée (MEFP) and Défis et Objectifs Centrafrique (DOC)) have been intervening at the heart of the state and community justice systems by promoting access to justice and the defence of women accused of CWP. The observations presented above are drawn from the study ‘Witchcraft representations and judicial treatment of the offence of Charlatanism and Witchcraft Practices in CAR’. This study was commissioned by Avocats Sans Frontières as part of the project ‘Contributing to the sustainable respect of the right to a fair trial and human rights for women accused of witchcraft in CAR’, in order to further inform the organisation’s action and future interventions in this area.

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