REPUBLIC OF MALAWI: Killing spree of people with albinism fuelled by ritual practices and policing failures

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12 Jun 2016
[International Secretariat]

A surge in killings of people with albinism, whose body parts are used in ritual practices, has exposed a systematic failure of policing in Malawi and left this vulnerable group living in fear, Amnesty International reveals in a new report published today.

The report, "We are not animals to be hunted or sold": Violence and discrimination against people with albinism in Malawi", exposes how the wave of violent attacks against people with albinism have increased sharply over the last two years, with four people, including a baby, murdered in April 2016 alone.

Since November 2014, at least 18 people have been killed and at least five have been abducted and remain missing. Their bones are believed to be sold to practitioners of traditional medicine in Malawi and Mozambique for use in charms and magical potions in the belief that they bring wealth and good luck. The macabre trade is also fuelled by a belief that bones of people with albinism contain gold.

Amnesty International believes that the actual number of people with albinism killed is likely to be much higher due to the fact that many secretive rituals in rural areas are never reported. There is also no systematic documentation of crimes against people with albinism in Malawi.

As well as extreme forms of violence, the report also finds that people with albinism in Malawi experience widespread societal discrimination including verbal abuse and exclusion from accessing basic public services. They are discriminated against in the education system and many die from skin cancer because of lack of access to preventative resources such as sunscreen and information about the condition.

Systematic failure of policing

According to the Malawi Police Service, at least 69 crimes against people with albinism have been documented since November 2014. However Amnesty International has found that the police lack adequate training and skills needed to investigate such crimes.

The Malawi Police Service lacks resources, such as transport, to respond in a timely way to reported crimes and maintain visible policing in districts reporting high numbers of attacks.

In addition, there are fears that some police officers carry the same prejudices against people with albinism that exists within the wider Malawian society and fail to take human rights abuses against people with albinism seriously.

The Director of Public Prosecutions admitted to Amnesty International that the police prosecutors do not know all the relevant laws to deal with crimes against people with albinism.

There has been one case where the public took the law into their own hands and resorted to mob violence against suspected perpetrators. In March 2016 a mob burnt to death seven men in the Nsanje district bordering Mozambique after being suspected of trafficking body parts of people with albinism.

The authorities must take immediate steps to prevent, and publicly condemn mob justice attacks, as well as ensure that incidents of mob justice attacks are promptly, thoroughly, impartially and transparently investigated and that suspected perpetrators are brought to justice.

Living in fear

The increase in attacks and widespread discrimination coupled with ineffective policing has meant that many of Malawi's population of between 7,000 and 10,000 people with albinism live in constant fear.

One woman told Amnesty International that the attacks have changed her life. "When I was growing up I believed that I could do anything. Now I am very sensitive. I cannot take a lift from strangers. In the past I was moving about without fear. After 5.30pm I have to go home. I don't feel safe."

One 37 year-old man told Amnesty International: "People tell me in my face that they will sell me. One time someone said I was worth MK6 million (US$10,000). I felt pained by the remarks that a price tag can be put on me."

Exclusion and abuse within their own villages and communities is also a problem for people with albinism who are called names and threatened. Women with albinism are called Machilitso (cure) - feeding into the belief that having sex with a person with albinism can cure HIV. One woman told Amnesty International: "Without being brave you may end up throwing away the child because of the abuse and insults."

Amnesty International is calling on the government of Malawi to adopt specific measures to protect the rights to life and security of people with albinism by providing increased levels of visible policing in rural districts and taking action when attacks against this population group occur.

All reports of crimes against people with albinism should be revisited, and thoroughly, impartially, independently and transparently investigated and suspected perpetrators brought to justice."Police have a duty to protect all people against crime. Failure to effectively investigate crimes against people with albinism promotes a climate of impunity, an environment where horrific killings can continue."

7 June 2016

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