May 17, 2007 / 4:49 PM / 13 years ago

U.N. urges Liberia to outlaw trials by ordeal

MONROVIA, May 17 (Reuters) - Trial by ordeal and ritual killings persist in Liberia and are undermining efforts to improve human rights in the wake of a 1989-2003 civil war, a U.N. report said on Thursday.

In such trials, persons accused of crimes are subjected to ordeals — such as swallowing a poisonous brew or enduring burning or pain — to determine their innocence or guilt.

Despite a crackdown by the Liberian government and the United Nations, rights groups say the practice remains popular in Liberia, especially in rural areas where the police, army and authorities are mistrusted because of rights abuses during the civil war, which killed some 200,000 people.

"The Ministry of Justice should take immediate steps to outlaw harmful traditional practices such as trial by ordeal which violate human rights standards," the U.N. report said, noting that local authorities often consented to the practice.

The quarterly document from the U.N. Mission in Liberia also concluded that overcrowded prisons breached basic humanitarian standards, while corruption and a dearth of judicial staff made it hard to bring criminals to justice.

President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Africa’s first elected female president, revoked in November all government licences to stage trial by ordeal with a poisonous substance called "sassywood" - a lethal potion made from the bark of a tree which many Liberians believe holds mystical powers.

The report said the brew was widely used in cases involving suspected witches and accusations of theft, adultery and murder: those who vomited it up and survived were deemed innocent.

Other forms of trial by ordeal included burning the skin with a hot cutlass or dunking the hand in boiling oil.

The perception that courts are slow and corrupt has also bolstered such traditional practices, human rights groups say.

Earlier this year, Liberia’s Ministry of Post and Telecommunication said it used trial by ordeal to determine who stole post from the minister’s office.

The U.N. report cited a case in isolated Nimba country, in northern Liberia, where 37 suspected witches and witchdoctors were held captive for two months with the blessing of the local chiefs and subjected to beatings and torture, including starvation and rubbing mud and pepper into body orifices.

One of the victims, most of whom were women, died from her injuries after they were rescued by police. The eight suspects arrested for the abuses were later released on bail.

The report also gave details of the alleged ritualistic killing of a three-year-old child, as well as murders by secret societies and the lynching of women accused of witchcraft.

Ritual killings still occur in some parts of West Africa, where some people believe that obtaining bodies and body parts can work magic to obtain social success and political power.

The U.N. report also said government legislation to curb rape — which became popular as a weapon of war during the 1989-2003 conflict — had also not been implemented and suspects were routinely released on bail, even in cases of gang-rape.

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