Group pays fines to free 'witches'
Blantyre - A Malawian rights group said on Tuesday it had paid fines to secure the release of three elderly women sent to prison after being accused of witchcraft.
"We paid fines of $33 for each of the convicts. We are very very happy although the fight is on to seek the release of 50 others," George Thindwa, executive director of the Association of Secular Humanism (ASH), told AFP.
The three, aged 80, 72 and 62, were convicted a month ago by a court in Salima district, some 100km from the administrative capital Lilongwe, after having been accused of witchcraft by their neighbours.
They were sentenced to one year in prison because they could not pay the $33 fine, a large sum in a country where half of the population of 13 million lives on less than a dollar a day.
The case highlighted concerns over rights violations in Malawi based on allegations of witchcraft. Belief in witchcraft and traditional medicine runs deep in this former British colony, largely dominated by Christians.
Witchcraft is not technically illegal in Malawi but Thindwa's group has accused police and prosecutors of charging suspected "witches" under laws against causing breaches of the peace.
"Sentences passed to alleged witches have also been harsh and not in accordance with the stipulated sentences," he said.
The three elderly "witches" were sent to a notorious prison in Lilongwe where Thindwa said "they were suffering because of being poor and old".
"We appealed to our members and friends who solicited the funds" to pay the fines, said Thindwa, whose group last year launched a campaign against rights abuses based on witchcraft accusations.
The government last year set up a legal committee to change the law to criminalise witchcraft following public pressure.