Snaking around the outer wall of the courthouse in Mbaiki, Central African Republic, is a long line of citizens, all in human form and waiting to face judgment. It’s easy to imagine them as the usual mix of drunks, reckless drivers, and check-bouncers in the dock of a small American town. But here most are witches, and they are facing criminal punishment for hexing their enemies or assuming the shape of animals.
By some estimates, about 40 percent of the cases in the Central African court system are witchcraft prosecutions. (Drug offenses in the U.S., by contrast, account for just 12 percent of arrests.) In Mbaiki—where Pygmies, who are known for bewitching each other, make up about a tenth of the population—witchcraft prosecutions exceed 50 percent of the case load, meaning that most alleged criminals there are suspected of doing things that Westerners generally regard as impossible.
I went to the front of the witch line and asked Abdulaye Bobro, the chief judge, what the punishment was for casting spells. Bobro spoke in an articulate French baritone so rich with authority that I could imagine him flourishing as a crafty small-town defense lawyer, a Central African Atticus Finch, if he were not on the bench.
Bobro’s magisterial bearing was undiminished by his inglorious chambers, which are roughly the size of the reinforced-glass cubes gas-station clerks inhabit in bad neighborhoods. I asked him if he could explain how he reached judgments in witchcraft cases, and he cracked open his filthy, plastic-bound copy of the penal code. Without consulting the table of contents, he found the section on PCS, or the “practice of charlatanism and sorcery,” and let me read along as he quoted from memory the section that dictates a decade or more in jail and a nominal fine for engaging in witchcraft. In practice the penalties were significantly less, because the town had insufficient funds to maintain a jail. But Bobro supported the law’s preservation, perhaps because it gave him so much authority.
The classic study of witchcraft in Africa occurred among the Azande, who inhabit the eastern edge of the Central African Republic. The anthropologist Edward E. Evans-Pritchard found that the Azande attributed a staggering range of misfortunes—infected toes, collapsed granary roofs, even bad weather—to meddling by witches. Nothing happened by chance, only as an effect of spell-casting by a wicked interloper. That sentiment remains widespread among Central Africans, who demand that the law reflect the influence of witchcraft as they understand it. The standard legal concept of force majeure, under which a defendant cannot be held liable for an “act of God,” is thus rendered meaningless.
Foreign human-rights groups have noticed that many of the targets of prosecution are vulnerable types (like Pygmies, or even children), and nongovernmental organizations that exist to encourage the rule of law are embarrassed that the “law” in this case resembles the penal code of 17th-century Salem.
In response, the Central African parliament is considering striking the clause outlawing witchcraft from its books. The parliament is in Bangui, the capital, which sees far fewer witchcraft cases per capita. Even so, most lawyers I consulted there favored keeping the law intact, although they admitted that it fits uneasily in a modern legal system. “The problem is that in a witchcraft case, there is usually no evidence,” said Bartolomé Goroth, a lawyer in Bangui, who recently defended (unsuccessfully) a coven of Pygmies who had been accused of murder-by-witchcraft in Mbaiki. Goroth said the trials generally ended with an admission of guilt by an accused witch in exchange for a modest sentence. I asked how one determined guilt in cases where the alleged witches denied the charges. “The judge will look at them and see if they act like witches,” Goroth said, specifying that “acting like a witch” entailed behaving “strangely” or “nervously” in court. His principal advice to clients, he said, was to act normally and refrain from casting any spells in the courtroom.
Goroth argued that the legal system could not ignore a social fact as firmly embedded as witchcraft is in the republic. And every other lawyer I met not only supported its criminalization, but seemed to believe in the reality of shape-shifting and killing with magic spells. More than one pointed to the elbow when referring to witchcraft, indicating the site in the body where sorcery is said to reside.
I visited Mbaiki’s sole foreign nongovernmental organization, an Italian group called COOPI that exists to promote human rights and the rule of law. The two employees there were both educated Central Africans; the Italian running the office had gone home for a holiday, leaving them in the steaming office with her purring computer and a small stack of Italian books, a translation of The Celestine Prophecy on top.
They acknowledged that the rights of the accused are violated regularly in witchcraft prosecutions, because the charge carries enormous pressure to confess. But they, too, supported keeping the laws on the books, for pragmatic reasons: if people thought witches could hex with impunity, mobs would simply seize the alleged offenders, bring them to a pit, and bury them alive. One said, “If we do not apply laws against PCS, we will apply lex talionis.” That is, the rule of an eye for an eye, as preached in the Bible.