Since the start of 2017, some 479 women killed in Tanzania were accused of practicing witchcraft, according to a report released Monday by the Dar es Salaam-based Legal and Human Rights Centre (LHRC).
Five women who were accused of being witches were murdered by a mob last week. On average, an estimated 80 people are killed each month in Tanzania, the report stated.
Wilbroad Mtafungwa, a Tabora regional police general in the province where the killings occurred, said that vigilante killings related to witchcraft were on the rise in the area.
"We have launched a manhunt and so far several suspects have been arrested, but the investigations are ongoing," he told Reuters.
Helen Kijo-Bisimba, LHRC's executive director, said the rise in the number of murders during the last year is a consequence of restricted human rights in the country by conservative President John Magufuli – who has prohibited political rallies in the country until 2020.
Magufuli has also faced criticism for the government's failure to implement court rulings on human rights issues.
Belief in witchcraft, which dates back centuries in the East African country, is commonly used to explain misfortunes such as death, failed harvests and infertility.
According to the report, most of the lynching incidents took place in the main city and commercial hub, Dar es Salaam, and the Mbeya region in the southern highlands where superstitious beliefs are strongly held.
"This year there have been 117 deaths in Al-Salam, 33 in Mbeya and Mara with 28 deaths and Geita with 26," Bisimba said.
"These incidents must be strongly persecuted and we need to educate people who have the antiquated belief that women are always behind witchcraft," she added.
In the last 20 years, thousands of women are strangled, stabbed and burned alive on the pretext of practicing "witchcraft."
Human rights groups have condemned the wave of "witch killings" and complained that there have been too few prosecutions – causing anxiety among elderly women living in rural villages.