May 2, 2018 / 2:37 PM / 6 months ago

Murder of man with albinism in Malawi sparks call for death penalty

BLANTYRE, Malawi (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The latest murder of a man with albinism in Malawi - the 22nd in four years - has sparked calls for their killers to be executed to deter a wave of attacks in the poor southern African nation.

The dismembered corpse of 22-year-old McDonald Masambuka was found buried in southern Malawi several weeks after he went missing in March. Several body parts were missing.

A Catholic priest, police officer and medical officer are among 11 people facing charges of conspiracy and murder, police spokesman James Kadadzera told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Information minister Nicholas Dausi said international rights groups and donors were preventing the government from using the death penalty to deter such crimes in Malawi, where people with albinism are hunted down for their body parts.

“They are stopping us from enforcing capital punishment,” Dausi was quoted by local media as saying at Masambuka’s funeral last month. “Yet in their countries they execute murderers. Is this fair?” 

Malawi is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for people with albinism - a lack of pigmentation in the skin, hair and eyes - who are targeted so that their body parts can be used in magical potions and other ritual practices.

The United Nations’ top expert on albinism has said people with the condition risk “extinction” in Malawi due to relentless attacks fueled by superstitions.

President Peter Mutharika has since said Malawi should have an “honest debate” about whether to apply the death sentence to those found guilty of murdering people with albinism.

Malawi suspended capital punishment more than 20 years ago as it embraced democratic reforms. Although the death penalty still exists in law, it has been declared unconstitutional.

MURDERS

But rights groups said the focus on the death penalty was misplaced and the government should step up its efforts to investigate unsolved murders and protect people with albinism.

“We never have any experience where the death penalty has been successful as a deterrent,” said Overstone Kondowe, head of the Association of People with Albinism in Malawi (APAM), which helps about 3,400 people with the condition.

It has recorded 146 attacks in Malawi since 2014. About one in 20,000 people worldwide have the congenital disorder, with higher rates in sub-Saharan Africa.

Only five of 22 murders reported since 2014 are in court, said Kondowe, with 17 unsolved.

“We don’t have even have a suspect and nobody has been prosecuted,” he said of the 17 cases, adding that the police should reopen them now that they have better equipment.

“We didn’t have facilities of DNA testing to help with the investigation, so we’re seeking that because the current capacity can help to shed light on who was responsible.”

Rights groups called on the government to establish a commission of inquiry to find out who is behind the attacks, amid claims that they are organized by criminal gangs.

“There is a green light with the recent case where we have seen high profile people involved,” said Timothy Mtambo, who heads the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation, a charity.

“We believe a good investigation can open up our windows as to who is behind the trade ... We would be able to say we have unveiled the market and done (away) with the roots.”

Mtambo also echoed a United Nations’ call on the government to implement its own plan to strengthen protection measures, including buying sturdy locks for poor families at risk of attack, and for public education to eradicate superstitions.

“It should invest in preventative measures, not ‘curing’ the problem,” he said. “It needs to understand where we have people with albinism, which can help in drawing security plans. Currently there is no proper program.”

Reporting by Charles Pensulo, Editing by Robert Carmichael and Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.

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