GENEVA -- Spurred by the killing this week of a young woman accused of witchcraft in Papua New Guinea, the United Nations on Friday called on the country to address increasing vigilante violence against people accused of sorcery and to revoke a controversial sorcery law.
The United Nations human rights office in Geneva said it was deeply disturbed by the killing of the woman, Kepari Leniata, 20, who was stripped, tortured, doused in gasoline and set on fire on Wednesday as hundreds of spectators watched.
The killing in Mount Hagen, the Western Highlands provincial capital, reportedly was carried out by relatives of a 6-year-old boy who, they claimed, had been killed by her sorcery. The crowd blocked police officers and firefighters who tried to intervene.
"This case adds to the growing pattern of vigilante attacks and killings of persons accused of sorcery in Papua New Guinea," Cecile Pouilly, a spokeswoman for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, told reporters in Geneva.
Ms. Pouilly said that police were continuing their investigation of a case in Jiwaka Province in November, when people held three women and two men for 20 days for allegedly using sorcery to kill another person, torturing them with iron rods and knives heated over fires before killing them.
According to Amnesty International, violence against those accused of sorcery is endemic in Papua New Guinea. In a statement on Friday, the human rights organization cited reports that in July, the police arrested 29 members of a witch-hunting gang who were murdering and cannibalizing people they suspected of sorcery.
A United Nations investigator who visited Papua New Guinea in March also found that women, particularly widows and those with no other family members to protect them, were disproportionately affected by the violence against suspected sorcerers, which included torture, rape, mutilations and murder.
"I was shocked to witness the brutality of the assaults perpetrated against suspected sorcerers," the investigator, Rashida Manjoo, said in a statement after her visit, reporting that many of the people she interviewed said sorcery accusations were commonly used to deprive women of their land and property.
"Any misfortune or death within the community can be used as an excuse to accuse such a person of being a sorcerer," Ms. Manjoo said.
Attacks often were carried out by young men and boys acting on the instruction of their community and under the influence of alcohol and drugs given to them, Ms. Manjoo said she was told. They also often acted with impunity, she said, because witnesses feared talking to the police and followed a social tradition of "wantok" or solidarity.
Responding to Wednesday's attack in Mount Hagen, the United Nations human rights office and Amnesty International urged Papua New Guinea's government to implement the recommendations of a constitutional commission that called in November for the repeal of the country's sorcery law.
Human rights groups say the 1971 law, which criminalizes sorcery and recognizes the accusation of sorcery as a defense in murder cases, contributes to the violence. The commission's report and recommendations, however, have not yet been presented to the country's Parliament, Ms. Pouilly said. "We don't know why nothing has been done since November," she said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.