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Controversial Practices: Trial by Ordeal in Liberia

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For several years now, rights and other interest groups have been strongly advocating for the abolition of several harmful traditional practices in Liberia. One such traditional practice is trial by ordeal - locally referred to as "sassywood."  As VOA reporter Frank Sainworla reports from Monrovia, the brutal deaths of seven people in southeastern Liberia from the practice last June heightened pressure for the sassywood to be banned.

The practice is said to have started in Liberia many generations back, and breaking this deep-rooted cultural belief remains a challenge. Joseph Jangar is Liberia’s Assistant Minister in charge of culture at the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

“Sassywood has been practiced by the traditional people of the Republic of Liberia. They have loved (it) because they believe in it.  Whenever there is a problem in their various homes, they practice sassywood to clear their doubt.  (It) has been practiced long ago even before I was born," he says.

There are various kinds of sassywood, or trial by ordeal, performed against people accused of committing crimes or who are said to be involved in witchcraft.

In one sassywood ritual, a machete is put into a fire. When it gets red hot, the machete is rubbed on the legs of several suspects and the one who gets burnt is declared guilty.  In another type, suspects are given a potentially deadly concoction to drink.

It was the drinking of such a concoction that caused the deaths of at least two of seven suspected witches in the southeastern River Gee county in June.

The butchered corpses of the others were later discovered and gruesome photos published in local newspapers, something that prompted a serious public outcry against the sassywood practice.

Assistant Internal Affairs Minister Jangar says the Liberian government has now put a halt to trial by ordeal.

“Nobody is above government. Nobody is above the law of Liberia. The Justice Ministry has advised that it be abolished because its causing lot problems. People are not practicing it [properly] bringing the destruction of lives. So these are some of the things the human rights people are looking at to say sassywood should be abolished. But sassywood had been enjoyed by our traditional leaders. So there’s a need for us to educate them on why it must be abolished," he says. 

Human rights groups such as FIND, the Foundation for International Dignity, says it is closely monitoring the government’s ban.

Roosevelt Woods is FIND’s Assistant Program officer.

“Obviously, we have the capacity, and we have been doing that. This message has been sent across the entire country. We are monitoring. We are also involved in a radio campaign as well.  We’ve just produced about 25 jingles related to sassywood practices and its illegality. We are doing everything we can. We have the capacity and we are doing everything we can as a grassroots organization to ensure that the sassywood problem is brought under control,“ he says.

Enforcing the ban on sassywood may be difficult, given the way it’s deeply rooted in Liberia’s cultural practices. 

Recently, a 71 year-old man being tried in Monrovia city court for allegedly raping a five-year-old girl requested authorities to use sassywood so that he could be cleared of the statutory rape charges.

Around 40 per cent of Liberians are animists, with a similar proportion of Christians, many of whom would also profess beliefs in ancestral spirits. In a land where the courts have been decimated by civil war – and are also several days journey from many villages -- sassywood provides for many a quick solution to crime. Many say they do not realize that they do not have to take part.

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