Tortures linked to AIDS 'witchcraft'

An Australian researcher has linked Papua New Guinea's burgeoning HIV/AIDS epidemic to the torture and murder of women accused of witchcraft.

It was revealed yesterday that one woman died after having her uterus ripped out with a steel hook and others were held down and burned with hot metal.

In one of the worst cases, witnesses say women were publicly tortured over almost two weeks to extract confessions they had killed people using sorcery.

Nicole Haley, who recently returned from the remote, poverty-stricken Lake Kopiago area of the rugged Southern Highlands, interviewed victims and perpetrators.

Since December, there had been four public vigilante-style "trials' of accused witches involving prolonged torture, she said.

However, there are no police stationed in the area to investigate and local elders who objected to the treatment of the women were threatened with firearms by young men, some high on marijuana.

Dr Haley - a postgraduate research fellow at the Australian National University - has lived, studied and worked among the Duna people of Lake Kopiago for extended periods since 1994.

Her findings on the witchcraft trials have been detailed in a research paper presented to a two-day ANU conference on HIV/AIDS in Papua New Guinea that wound up last night.

Duna men wear elaborate wigs made from human hair and their culture is marked by a deep-seated fear of witches.

Newspapers rarely reach Lake Kopiago and few villagers have access to a radio - so government campaigns to increase awareness of HIV/AIDS do not get through.

Dr Haley said that in this information vacuum women are being scapegoated for inexplicable deaths of relatively young people as the nation's HIV/AIDS epidemic spreads from urban areas and mine sites.

At Lake Kopiago, an old man has admitted to beginning the first of what has become a spate of witchhunts by naming women he said he saw in dreams using sorcery to make people ill.

A tragedy unfolded as six women - aged from their early 20s to early 50s - were held and tortured over 13 days.

"They were beaten, stabbed, cut with bush knives, burnt with reinforcing iron and crowbars," Dr Haley said. "Two of the women were sexually assaulted and one had her uterus ripped out with an iron hook. That woman died as a result and others sustained horrific, disabling injuries."

The young attackers had all been denied an education in a region where schools have been closed and government services have largely broken down.

Dr Haley said further Lake Kopiago witch trials in February involved torture, and during her latest visit she heard of more accused witches being persecuted.

She said that the link between HIV/AIDS and witchcraft was being made elsewhere in Papua New Guinea, especially in the Eastern Highlands and Simbu provinces where dozens of women had been tortured.

Police were receiving a couple of reports a month of accused witches being attacked and Dr Haley suspects that some of these abuses are related to growing numbers of fatalities from AIDS.

"These emerging practices make evident that PNG's HIV/AIDS epidemic is more than a public health issue - it threatens to further impact on law and order."