Judge seeks end of witchcraft curbs

Harare, Zimbabwe - A senior High Court judge urged Zimbabwe's government to ease colonial era restrictions on the practice of witchcraft, state-run radio reported Tuesday.

Many here retain strong beliefs in the healing power of spirit mediums -- known as n'angas, or witch doctors -- along with the role of ancestral rites in the nation's cultural life, Judge Maphios Cheda said Monday at the opening of a new judicial year in the second city of Bulawayo.

"The strongly held conviction of belief in witchcraft and traditional healers ... cannot be wished away," Cheda said in the speech quoted on state radio.

He urged amendments to the century-old Witchcraft Suppression Act "in keeping with the popular thinking and beliefs of the majority in this country."

The Zimbabwe National Traditional Healers Association estimates 80 percent of Zimbabweans visit traditional healers for treatment or consultations, Cheda said.

Though the act has not been strictly enforced since independence from Britain in 1980, he said it has forced some rites to be performed in secret. The law prohibits "the throwing of bones" to diagnose problems by traditional healers clad in feathered headdress and animal skins. So well-to-do Zimbabweans often visit healers under cover of darkness.

Cheda also accused lawyers of decrying the government's human rights record when they ignored colonial era injustices.

President Robert Mugabe's government faces mounting local and international criticism for its suppression of dissent, including arresting critics, closing down independent newspapers and packing the courts with sympathetic judges.