HUNDREDS of women, men and children are charged every year with practising witchcraft in the Central African Republic, a crime punishable by execution or imprisonment.
Some have murdered and others have just been the victims of wild accusations, yet scores of the inhabitants of Bangui central prison will eventually be tried as witches.
In 17th century Europe, the guilt of witches was decided by trial by ordeal. An innocent would not float in water or be injured by touching red-hot metal.
The present-day methods of Martin Nagoagoumi, a ‘witchcraft’ detective in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, do not mark a great leap into modernity.
Stacked under a dusty scales of justice there are long, thin sticks for beating children and metal poles and cudgels punched with nails for adults who refuse to ‘confess’ to the accusation of witchcraft.
African belief in witchcraft goes back centuries and remains strong because of the lack of education. Few people are taught science and people cannot explain death or illness.
In a cell at Bangui police station Ermine Qualigon, 70, admits she buried a piece of her daughter-in-law’s miscarried baby in the hope of making the woman infertile.
"My son’s wife never gave me any food. When my son and her had meat, they only gave me soup," she says.
Her son, a telephone technician, described to a police officer how his wife became mysteriously thin. He says his mother had "eaten" her flesh.
Blaise Damagoa, 13, also accused of witchcraft, tells how he ate a neighbour’s cake and was later told it contained human heart. The woman said he could now make people sick by touching them.
"I changed. I refused to go to school. I told my brother what had happened. He beat me up, then reported me to the police."
At the station the detectives who specialise in sorcery are routinely injected with ‘vaccinations’ of herbs prepared by witchdoctors, in order to make them immune to spells.
They say this is necessary because the number of those practising witchcraft is rising. "We know that many people are dying of AIDS and so not all cases relating to this disease are the result of witchcraft. But we are seeing an increase in the problem. It’s the result of poverty," says the head of police in Bangui, Jean Guenganno.
The police and the courts practise ‘good’ witchcraft while anyone who is accused of using witchcraft for malevolent purposes can be prosecuted.
In the Central African Republic, where the health ministry says more than 17% of the population carries the HIV virus, Aids deaths are often attributed to sorcery rather than unprotected sex or infected blood transfusions.
Moreover, the legal system recognises witchcraft as a crime. Various ‘truth’ herbs are used in court to make a suspect confess. A number of spells involve the burying bits of clothing, so snipped clothes are brought before the jury and presented as evidence.
Only a few sceptics in Bangui say jealousy and rivalry are at the heart of most witchcraft cases. Local human rights lawyers, despite working in plush Western-style offices and attending human rights conferences abroad, refuse to dismiss the powers of sorcery.
The CAR’s presidents are firm believers in the practice. Across the capital the grand residences of former presidents lie abandoned. New leaders insist on new homes to avoid the power of witchcraft.
"In any case, witchcraft is so widespread that campaigning to abolish the legal recognition of the crime is pointless. But we are pushing for fair trials of those accused," says Matthias Morouba, of the Human Rights Observatory in Bangui.
Neighbours often mete out justice themselves when a person is suspected of casting spells, instead of taking the person to the police station. In M’baiki, a large town in the south west, several women accused of witchcraft were recently buried alive. Others have been executed or seen their houses burnt down.
All this may be too late for the ‘witches’ already locked up. Stephanie washes her face in the police station’s grounds, trying to ignore the stares of the soldiers.
Her mother died when she was young and her relatives are unlikely to bring her food and clothes in prison. Her trial could be years away.