PAPUA NEW GUINEA'S Constitutional and Law Reform Commission says it wants the Sorcery Act repealed by the end of this year.
Last year, the Commission released a review of the Act after human rights groups criticised the increase in the number of false accusations of sorcery.
This broadcast discussion was hosted by presenter Melanie Arnost.
ARNOST: Sorcery, or sanguma, is a part of every day life in Papua New Guinea. Radio Australia journalist Caroline Tiriman says it's difficult to denounce.
TIRIMAN: There are whispers around in the villages saying "oh, so and so does this and that". So you grow up looking at these people who you are told are sorcerers and then you tend to believe that yeah of course there is this sorcery in the villages.
ARNOST: Reverend Jack Urame, a member of the Constitutional and Law Reform Commission says the fear of sorcery is widespread.
URAME: According to Papua New Guineans any death is not natural. You know, all deaths are related to sorcery or witchcraft, even if there is an accident, even if someone is dying from malaria or typhoid or whatever disease of sickness. So I think it is more than 90 per cent of the total population still believe in the existence of sorcery and also in the power of sorcery and witchcraft.
ARNOST: Because of this belief, the government introduced the Sorcery Act of 1971 to "prevent and punish evil practices of sorcery" In its preamble, it recognises that laws dealing with sorcery may "encourage" ill-intentioned people "to make baseless or merely spiteful or malicious accusations that their enemies are sorcerers, solely to get them into trouble with other people". While the Sorcery Act says it seeks to outlaw these false accusations, a researcher from Papua New Guinea's Melanesian Institute, Fr Franco Zuma, says it's having the opposite effect.
ZUMA: We found out that that sorcery act is not actually helping to overcome the problem but is making the problem worse. By criminalising sorcery people think "you see, even the government believes that, so we can take the law into our own hands".
ARNOST: Fr Zuma says the current anti-sorcery legislation encourages people to violently attack, and sometimes kill, those they believe practise sorcery. But in his research, he found the vast majority of sorcery accusations were false.
ZUMA: People accuse other people not so much because they think they are really the culprit, but because they want to get rid of the people in one way or another.
Sometimes, there are people that believe they are sorcerers because sorcerors are respected . Sometimes, it's the only way of being respected in a society, by making other people believe that they could do harm to you. So our suggestion was to repeal the Sorcery Act, to treat the killing, the accusation as slander and the killing as a murder.
ARNOST: This suggestion was included in the Constitutional and Law Reform Commission's working paper, presented to Papua New Guinea MPs.
It reports 75 people, who were accused of practising sorcery, were tortured and killed in payback between the years 2000 and 2006. Reverend Jack Urame says the situation is getting worse.
URAME: First of all we should denounce this traditional belief. There is no power, there is no existence of this belief, so anything related to accusation or killing in regard to sorcery must be brought before the court.
ARNOST: Police Sergeant Caspar Taraito from Aitape, in West Sepik province, is one of many in PNG who believe in sorcery. In contrast to the Commission's demands, he wants the Sorcery Act to be changed so that it's easier to charge those accused of sorcery.
TARAITO: The law is there. But it means we have to prove everything before we get people in prison.
ARNOST: So you've charged someone with sorcery before?
TARAITO: Oh yeah, we do. Last year we locked up [one person] for 12 months in jail. We prove everything regarding that sorcery.
ARNOST: How did you know they were practising sorcery?
TARAITO: Something like grass they have grown in their backyard and they have something where they use that's the evil thing and kill the people. When you throw dirty (your rubbish) they pick it up, and then they take it to where they've got their things, and they just put them in a hole or heat it in the fire and then you got sick and you don't have medicine, you pass away.
ARNOST: Dr Miranda Forsyth, from Australian National University's School of Regulation, Justice and Diplomacy, says while she doesn't believe in sorcery, she's backing the Reform Commission's approach to changing the Sorcery Act.
FORSYTH: All laws, particularly criminal laws, need to take into account the strongly held beliefs of members of the population to make it a fair criminal law system. I'm a strong believer in having such a thing as a sorcery act, given that you do have people who honestly believe that if they do not take some action then they are going or members of their family are going to die.
ARNOST: She says a lack of health care in rural areas is the reason for the increase in sorcery accusations.
FORSYTH: In Papua New Guinea, from my understanding, it is the rise of HIV/AIDS that has really led to this because there's just been so many unexplained deaths of young people that people are looking for solutions, people are looking for answers, and witchcraft has traditionally been the answer for that sort of death.
ARNOST: The Melanesian Institute's Fr Zuma agrees.
ZUMA: The government is happy that people don't complain about their service, about the lack of medicine and the lack of doctors because people they accuse eachother for everything.
ARNOST: But he says even the Constitutional and Law Reform Commission has faced divisions on how to change the Act and handle sorcery accusations.
ZUMA: Because currently, the head of the commission - a lawyer, highly respected - died! You can just imagine how the people interpreted that death, you know. A prominent person, chairman of the commission. So I know that the commission is divided.
Some people, because they know how the others believe, they would like to make the law even stronger, in the sense there is no need of evidence. Once a person is accused he's accused - even if you cannot provide evidence, he should be put to prison, which is really against any kind of human rights