A new wave of attacks on people with albinism is raging in Malawi due to prevailing superstitious beliefs and systemic failures in criminal justice system, a human rights body has said.
Amnesty International in a statement issued on Tuesday said the systemic failures in criminal justice system is leaving members of people with albinism vulnerable at the mercy of criminal gangs.
“When the wheels of justice turn so painfully slowly, as they do in Malawi, and historic cases of attacks on people with albinism remain unresolved, it creates a climate of impunity and emboldens suspected perpetrators,” observes Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for Southern Africa
Since January 2017, at least two people with albinism have been killed while seven more have reported crimes such as attempted murder or abduction. This stands in stark contrast to the last six months of 2016, when no such incidents were reported.
“Despite stronger legislation, including reforms to the Penal Code and the Anatomy Act, to tackle attacks against people with albinism, we are seeing an alarming resurgence of killings and attacks against this vulnerable group in 2017,” said Muchena.
In its June 2016 report, Amnesty International exposed how people with albinism were ‘hunted and killed like animals’ for their body parts. Their bones are believed to be sold to practitioners of traditional medicine in Malawi and Mozambique for use in charms and magical potions associated with wealth and good luck.
“The only way to stop these killings is by ensuring that existing laws are applied effectively and that there is efficient prosecution and coordination across the authorities,” Muchena explained.
A new wave of killings and attacks against people with albinism emerged in January 2017, after a six month reprieve between June and December 2016.
The latest abduction took place on 28 May, when a nine-year-old boy, Mayeso Isaac, was taken by a gang of 10 men. The incident took place in neighbouring Mozambique where he had travelled at the invitation of relatives to visit.
On 28 February 2017, Mercy Zainabu Banda, a 31-year-old woman with albinism was found murdered in Lilongwe with her hand, right breast and hair removed.
On 10 January 2017, 19-year-old Madalitso Pensulo was killed after he was invited for afternoon tea at his friend’s house in Mlonda village in Thyolo District. A passer-by heard him scream, but he died before the police arrived at the scene.
On 9 March 2017, Gilbert Daire, survived an attack after four men attempted to drill through the wall of his home in Lilongwe as he slept. They fled the scene after his neighbours intervened. One of the suspected perpetrators was arrested after community members turned him over to the police, but he was later acquitted by the court.
In April, two-year-old Misheck Samson survived a kidnapping while he was sleeping next to his mother in Cholwe Village in Ntchisi. Three men were arrested for planning to abduct the toddler. They confessed to the police that they wanted to kidnap him because they needed money.
On 17 February, 36-year-old woman, Emily Kuliunde survived an attempted abduction in Dowa after her alleged abductors were apprehended by the community and handed to the police. Suspects remain in police custody.
Another case is that of Amos Jemus from Ntcheu district near the Mozambique border, whose father allegedly threatened to sell him on 1 February 2017.
Criminal Justice failures
In Malawi, police are empowered to prosecute and convict suspected perpetrators of crimes, however they are under resourced and receive little training. As a result, most cases are poorly handled and rarely result in a conviction. The vast majority of cases involving crimes against people with albinism, in particular murder, fail to go before a court due to a lack of funds and legal aid support for suspected perpetrators.
Even where cases have been brought to court, the perpetrators have often been released due to flawed investigations and a lack of relevant admissible evidence.
“The only way to stop these killings is by ensuring that existing laws are applied effectively and that there is efficient prosecution and coordination across the authorities,” said Muchena.
He added: “This rise in flagrant attacks against people with albinism shows that confidence is growing among criminal gangs that they will not get caught.”
“This rise in flagrant attacks against people with albinism shows that confidence is growing among criminal gangs that they will not get caught. They are taking advantage of Malawi’s failing criminal justice system. The authorities must take decisive measures to end these attacks once and for all.”
At least 20 people with albinism have been killed in Malawi since November 2014.
According to Malawi Police Service, at least 117cases involving crimes related to people with albinism have been reported since November 2014.
People are targeted for their body parts, due to the belief that they have magical powers that bring good luck.
Approximately 7,000 to 10,000 people with albinism live in Malawi
Facts about albinism
- Albinism is caused by a mutation in genes that affects the production of melanin. It is typically characterised by pale skin, light hair and poor vision, according to the U.S.-based Mayo Clinic.
- Globally, one person in 18,000 has albinism, according to Standing Voice, a London-based albinism advocacy organisation. It is far more common in sub-Saharan Africa, and one person in 1,400 is affected in parts of Tanzania, the group says.
- In sub-Saharan Africa, people with albinism face discrimination, abandonment and poverty, according to Under the Same Sun, a Canadian-based group. Many husbands desert wives who give birth to a child with albinism, and superstition may lead them to abandon or kill their newborns. Children who survive may go to school, but vision problems lead to high dropout rates. Adults are shunned and not hired for jobs.
- People with albinism fall victim to ritual attacks in regions where superstition says their body parts bring power, wealth and good luck. Most victims are children, and body parts are often taken from live victims under the belief that the intensity of their screams increases their potency, according to the United Nations.
- More than 600 cases of attacks on people with albinism have been reported in 26 countries, mostly in the last eight years, said a U.N. report released this year. The actual number is likely higher, but reporting is hampered in part by family involvement in the attacks, it said.
- Violence against people with albinism is particularly severe in Tanzania, where there have been 76 murders and 73 documented attacks since 2006, according to Standing Voice.
- The average person with albinism in East Africa dies by age 30 from skin cancer, and only 2 percent of people with albinism live to age 40, according to Asante Mariamu, a U.S. organisation that raises awareness of albinism in East Africa. Many are unaware of ways to protect themselves from the sun or have no access to affordable sunscreen. (Sources: Amnesty International, Thomson Reuters Foundation)