A man was sentenced to death in Malawi on Friday for killing an albino teenager in a case has become a campaign issue ahead of a national election this month, with the opposition accusing the government of inaction.
Belief in witchcraft is widespread in rural Malawi, one of the world’s poorest countries, fueling ritual killings particularly targeting people with albinism because of the belief that their body parts can increase wealth.
In the first such punishment for the abduction and killing of people with albinism, Justice Mclean Kamwambe said he wanted to send a stern warning to would-be offenders.
The judge said the killings and abductions of albinos since 2014 has tainted the international image of Malawi and has reduced the country to “a state of terror.”
The focus on albino murders has sparked finger-pointing among politicians ahead of the election on May 21, with the main opposition party, the Malawi Congress Party, accusing the government of doing little to stop the killings.
The government, which has formed a judicial inquiry into the killings and abductions, says it cannot interfere in work of the police and courts.
The government has also offered cash rewards for information about the abductions and killings, which have reached at least 150 since 2014, according to the United Nations.
According to the court’s ruling, the convicted 28-year-old confessed to the murder and said he wanted to use the 19-year-old victims’ body parts to become rich on instructions from a witch doctor in neighboring Mozambique.
The superstitions, stigmas and maiming and killing of people with albinism is visible across a number of southern and eastern African countries, with cases reported in Congo, Tanzania, Mozambique and South Africa. There is a lucrative market for albino body parts in the region and internationally.
One Malawian albino who narrowly escaped death was street musician Lazarus Chigwandali, who was once lured into a car and kidnapped to be killed for his body parts but managed to escape. Chigwandal’s life story is the center of “Lazarus,” a new short documentary playing at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. The singer Madonna, who has adopted four children from Malawi, was executive producer.
This past week he gained a new fan in Oscar-winner Leonardo DiCaprio, playing a private show for the actor and his friends in New York.