Papua New Guinea mulls death penalty for sorcery murder, rape

SYDNEY (AFP) - Papua New Guinea is considering introducing the death penalty for sorcery killings and rape after a spate of horrific crimes against women drew international condemnation, reports said Monday.

Attorney-General Kerenga Kua said public opinion had swung in favour of capital punishment after a series of brutal sorcery-related murders including beheadings and torchings, and the gang rape of a US academic.

The crimes have prompted an international outcry and Mr Kua said he had received more than 100 petitions from human rights and other groups across the globe calling for urgent action on the violence against women.

"Those horrific, brutal, gruesome killings of the type that a woman was burnt alive to her death should attract death penalty," The National newspaper reported Mr Kua as saying.

"Most of the people are ready for it and they want it now as they are fed up of the law and order problems in this country and they want to see a more liberal use of the death penalty."

In February a 20-year-old mother accused of witchcraft was stripped and burned alive in front of a crowd at a village market.

Earlier this month an elderly woman was beheaded after being accused of black magic.

Also this month, an Australian was murdered and his friend sexually assaulted by a group of men, followed barely a week later by the ambush of the US researcher, her husband and their guide on a wilderness track.

She was stripped, had her hair cut to the scalp and was gang-raped by a group of nine men armed with rifles and knives before a sound in the forest frightened them away.

Mr Kua said he had been monitoring the public mood on the issue and it was time the government "did something radical" to halt the crimes, which have undermined PNG's standing as a tourism and investment destination.

"My job is simply to do what the people want me to do. I cannot shut my eyes to the people's request. I'm not deaf, I'm listening; if they want it we will give it to them," he said.

The offences of treason, piracy and wilful murder are already punishable by death in the impoverished Pacific nation, but the country has not carried out an execution since 1954.

The Catholic Church condemned Mr Kua's remarks as "giving in to the same vengeful streak in PNG culture that is part of our current problem", and said the death penalty would not be a deterrent to violent crime.

"Those who commit these offences do not believe that they will be caught and even less be actually sentenced," said Archbishop Douglas Young in a statement.

"The major deterrent to crime is not the severity of punishment but its certainty."

He said the government needed to strengthen police capacity to "find, arrest and prosecute offenders".

"Give the clear message, if you do this you will be caught and you will be punished. Change cultural norms that encourage the protection of offenders," he said.

"Let's turn our attention to policies that will genuinely address the plague of violence in PNG, not those that serve only to further brutalise the nation."