Congo children branded as witches, abducted: U.N.

Geneva, Switzerland - Growing numbers of children in the Democratic Republic of Congo are being labeled as witches, and others face abduction by armed groups for use as soldiers, a United Nations watchdog said Friday.

The U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child called on Congolese authorities to better protect young people in their country, including those left orphaned by the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

"Children, contrary to being treated primarily as victims, have been arrested, detained and tried in military courts for military offences and other crimes allegedly committed while they were in armed forces or groups," it said.

Street children in the former Zaire are regularly harassed, threatened, beaten or arrested by the military and police, the U.N. committee said.

"A large number of children are labeled as witches and consequently suffer serious stigmatization," it said.

It expressed concern that "violence against children accused of witchcraft is increasing, and that children are being kept as prisoners in religious buildings where they are exposed to torture and ill-treatment or even killed under the pretext of exorcism."


It further said that several thousand Congolese children who had been recruited into or used in hostilities needed assistance to adapt back into normal society, and cited "reports indicating that children have been re-recruited by armed groups in the absence of alternatives," without giving details.

The 22-page findings were issued after a three-week meeting during which the body's 18 independent experts examined the records of eight countries.

The session coincided with the start of the first war crimes trial at the International Criminal Court, where the prosecutor accused Congolese militia leader Thomas Lubanga of training child soldiers to kill, pillage and rape in a 1998-2003 war.

As elsewhere in Africa, many Congolese hold traditional animist beliefs and use spells, fetishes and charms to practice witchcraft, often combined with other religions like Christianity or Islam.

The U.N. body urged Congo's government to prevent children from being accused of witchcraft by strengthening public awareness campaigns directed at parents and religious leaders. Authorities should also prosecute people who accuse children of witchcraft and those who commit violence against them, it said.