SYDNEY – Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O’Neill has announced a renewed push for the death penalty, as well as life sentences for rape, saying that “draconian” penalties were needed to tackle violent crime, local media reported Wednesday.
O’Neill said the impoverished Pacific nation would also repeal its controversial Sorcery Act, meaning any black magic killing would be treated as murder, while unveiling tough new punishments for drug and alcohol offenses.
It follows a spate of horrific crimes against women, including the beheading and burning alive of a mother accused of witchcraft as well as the gang rape of two foreigners last month, drawing international condemnation.
“There will be maximum penalties that have never been seen before in this country,” O’Neill said, according to PNG media reports. “We are serious about addressing this issue. We will regulate and pass laws that some people in our country may find draconian. But the people are demanding it.”
The PNG government has received more than 100 petitions from human rights and other groups across the globe calling for urgent action on the spike in violence this year.
In February a 20-year-old mother accused of witchcraft was stripped and burned alive in front of a crowd at a village market, while an elderly woman was beheaded last month after being accused of black magic. Also in April, an Australian was murdered and his friend sexually assaulted by a group of men.
Central to the law and order push is a drive to revive the death penalty, which is currently in place for treason, piracy and wilful murder but has not been used since the country’s last execution in 1954. O’Neill said the government would “strengthen it further” by reviewing existing laws to allow for its “full implementation,” though it was not clear whether the scope of offenses punishable by death would be broadened.
Any killing linked to accusations of sorcery would now be treated as a murder under a repeal of the Sorcery Act, which international human rights groups and the United Nations have been lobbying for.
Though it criminalizes the practice of sorcery — in which there is a widespread belief in PNG, where many people do not accept natural causes as an explanation for misfortune and death — the 1974 act has been criticized by human rights groups, who say it led to an increase in false accusations by people against their enemies and gave the notion of sorcery a legitimacy it would not otherwise have had.
“I want to assure the country that we will review some of the legislation in respect of some of the behavior that is now happening,” O’Neill said. The reforms are expected to come before Parliament later this month.