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.