Zimbabwe outlaws practise of witchcraft

Harare, Zimbabwe - ZIMBABWE has outlawed the practise of witchcraft following a raft of amendments to legislation drawn up by the former colonial regime.

From July this year, witchcraft will be a criminal offence punishable by a fine or a five-year jail term, the country's Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa said.

Until President Robert Mugabe assented to the amendments last week, Zimbabwe's Witchcraft Suppression Act, a holdover from the colonial era, made it illegal to call anyone a witch, meaning nearly all cases went unreported.

The police were also powerless to act, and just recently, the country's chief police spokesman said it was next to impossible to prove that one was a witch.

"Witchcraft is not an area that lends itself to police scrutiny," said Wayne Budzijena, the Zimbabwe Republic Police spokesman. "How do you verify an evil spell? This is a matter of spiritual faith, not a matter of empirical evidence."

Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa told state media at the weekend that Part VI of Chapter V of the Witchcraft Suppression Act had been amended and the amendments would come into effect on July 1, 2006.

He said: "President Mugabe has assented to the amendments and criminals will be charged for breaching certain sections of the Act as from July this year."

The new laws make it a criminal offence to hire a witch or assist in the commission of witchcraft, but also provides protection for people "groundlessly" accused of practising witchcraft.

The 50 000-member Zimbabwe National Traditional Healers Association has been instrumental in forcing the change in law.

Gordon Chavunduka, chairman of the association said: "Witchcraft and tokoloshis (demons and their gremlin-like henchmen, ankle-high creatures) are making a comeback. It's obvious the cause is economic. The worse the economy gets, the more political tension there is in society, the more frustrated and frightened people get. They turn to witchcraft to gain riches or to hurt their enemies."

In January this year, a top High Coutrt judge urged the Zimbabwe government to ease colonial era restrictions on the practice of witchcraft.

Justice Maphios Cheda, opening the new judicial year, said: "The strongly held conviction of belief in witchcraft and traditional healers ... cannot be wished away.

"We should amend the century-old Witchcraft Suppression Act in keeping with the popular thinking and beliefs of the majority in this country."

Although many highly educated Zimbabweans tend not to believe in such phenomena, they acknowledge the belief is part of their cultural background.

"I've never seen a tokoloshi, I've never had a tokoloshi attack me, but I've heard all the stories like everyone else," said Professor Welshman Ncube, a constitutional law scholar. "I don't believe or disbelieve. It's difficult for outsiders to understand, but African daily life relies heavily on the spirit world, for good or evil."

The amended Part VI of Chapter V of the Witchcraft Suppression Act now reads: "Whoever accuses a person of witchcraft means to indicate that the person (is possessed by a spirit or) used non-natural means (witch-finding) to cause death, injury, disease or inability in any person. This also means that destruction or loss of or damage to property of any description was involved.

"Any person who engages in any practice knowing that it is commonly associated with witchcraft, shall be guilty of engaging in a practice commonly associated with witchcraft if having the intention to cause harm to any person.

"Such practice inspires in the person against whom it was directed, a real fear or belief that harm will occur to that person or any member of his or her family, and be liable to a fine not exceeding level ten or imprisonment for a period not exceeding five years or both."

"Spoken words shall not in themselves constitute a practice commonly associated with witchcraft for the purpose of this section, unless accompanied by or used in connection with other conduct commonly associated with witchcraft.

"For the avoidance of doubt it is declared that any person who assists another person to commit the crime of engaging in a practice commonly associated with witchcraft, by giving advice or providing any substance or article to enable that person to commit the crime, shall be liable to be charged as an accomplice to the crime.

"A court shall not take judicial notice of any practice that is said to be commonly associated with witchcraft, but any person who, in the opinion of the court, is suitably qualified to do so on account of his/her knowledge, shall be competent to give expert evidence as to whether the practice that forms the subject of a charge under this section is a practice that is commonly associated with witchcraft, whether generally or in the particular area where the practice is alleged to have taken place.

"Any person who groundlessly or by the purported use of non-natural means accuses another person of witchcraft shall be guilty of indicating a witch or wizard and liable.

"It shall not be a defence to a contravention of a subsection involving the purported use of any non-natural means for the person charged to prove that the person he/she accused actually engaged in any practice commonly associated with witchcraft, but the court may suggest such circumstance as mitigatory when assessing the sentence to be imposed."

The amendment disqualifies as defence to murder, assault or any other crime that an accused was influenced by a genuine belief that the victim was a witch or wizard and a court would only use it as mitigation.