BLANTRYE, MALAWI - A court in Malawi sentenced three people to death this week for killing an albino person. They had been found guilty of a gruesome murder in which they removed the victim’s limbs for use in a so-called magic ritual.
This was the second time a Malawian court had issued a death sentence for an albino killing, in hopes of deterring future attacks. But not everyone thinks that approach is effective.
Malawi's courts have long been accused of giving lenient sentences to people who attack albinos, a development believed to contribute to the persistence of the attacks.
In a report released in May, Amnesty International said 22 albinos had been slain in Malawi since 2014.
Government 'very grateful'
Judge Esmey Chombo, who issued the death sentence on Tuesday, said the penalty would act as a strong deterrent to others and help stop the attacks.
The verdict pleased the government, spokesman Mark Botoman told VOA.
"We are glad that something is being done, and we are very grateful to the judiciary that we are moving towards this direction,” he said. “We hope that the kinds of punishment that are being meted by the courts will be able to deter those that have evil motives to attack, abduct or kill people with albinism."
However, Edge Kanyongolo, a constitutional lawyer at Chancellor College of the University of Malawi, believes that death sentences cannot deter attacks if the cases take a long time to conclude.
He noted the case that wrapped up Tuesday took about five years.
"If swiftness is not there — if people know that in this system, if we go to court today, [judgment will come] 10 years from now — it [the death sentence] has no deterrent," Kanyongolo said.
Malawi has a death penalty law on the books, but there have been no executions since the country switched to a democratic government in 1994. Instead, convicted murderers remain in prison for life.
Rose Msope, project officer for NGO Human Rights for Girls and Women with Disabilities, said that in the absence of executions, the death sentence will remain useless in deterring attacks on albinos.
"There are times when the president pardons some of the prisoners,” Msope said. “So should the pardon happen to those convicted for killing albinos, that means our security will still be at risk."
Albinos, who lack the skin pigment melanin, stand out in Africa and are targeted by so-called witch doctors who use their body parts in rituals and potions that are supposed to bring good luck.
The government has tried to debunk the claims, and in June a judge issued a ban against what he called "witch doctors, traditional healers, charm sellers, fortune tellers and magicians," and ads for their services.
Malawi's albino association praised the ruling, but traditional healers said they would fight it, insisting they are not involved in magic or murder.