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'Sorcerer' or healer - community, not police, decide

'Sorcerer' or healer - community, not police, decide

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cry.jpg

Distraught widow insists "My husband was not a witch."

Last month a man suspected of sorcery was killed and his liver eaten by his attackers.

But as Chea Sotheacheath discovered it was not an isolated case. Fear of witchcraft

and its practitioners is common in the countryside and harsh measures are often taken

against those accused of dabbling in the black arts.

Chan Somaly was watching television at home in his village in Kampong Speu when he

was shot and killed last August.

His only crime, according to his wife, Say Kat, was to be falsely accused of being

a sorcerer.

Kat said her husband was a gifted traditional healer - krou - but he did not practice

magic.

She said when he was alive Somaly traveled throughout Kampong Speu selling medicines

and treating patients.

"My husband was not a witch. He was just very good at curing people including

children," she said.

But their neighbors were not convinced and they killed him, then they turned their

attention to his family.

"They killed my husband. ... They burned down my house and they chased me out

of the village," she said, sobbing. She is too scared to return fearing she

would be killed too.

Homeless and having no way of supporting her son or herself, Kat has appealed to

the authorities for help but there has been little progress.

She said she has often gone to the court to try and push her case along but they

did not seem interested.

She said the police have not arrested the murderers who still live in the village.

But Hem Phan, the head of serious crimes for the Kampong Speu police, said there

are a number of problems investigating such cases - the primary one being the large

number of similar complaints they receive each month.

He said in some months they hear of up to 10 murders of those suspected of practicing

witchcraft.

"Now the accusation of someone practicing witchcraft seems to happen in every

village," he said.

He pulled out a thick file of documents and said they were all crimes linked to witchcraft

and added the nature of the crime made it difficult to pursue.

"Police have trouble investigating these cases because people think they would

be bewitched and killed if they cooperate with the police.

"It is very difficult to explain to people the facts [about witches].

"The people here are superstitious.

"Most of the people when they are sick think that they are being bewitched."

He said that once the witchcraft idea took root it led to a hysteria which often

ended in a killing and then a cycle of revenge was started.

"We have two things happening here. People believe there has been a killing

by witchcraft and the people who are suspected of witchcraft are then killed by the

relatives of the people who have died," he said.

"They kill each other back and forth in revenge."

Phan said the problem seems very deep-rooted. He said he remembered his father telling

him stories of witchcraft when he was a child. But now belief in witchcraft seemed

to be growing, and while it had once been restricted to isolated communities there

was a growing belief among townspeople.

Sin Sopheap, commune chief at Samrong Tong, said the people in his area had a strong

belief in magic and this often lead to trouble and even killings in his commune.

He said when people died from disease witchcraft was often blamed. He said people

accused of witchcraft were then mistreated or killed.

He said that one group of suspected sorcerers and witches were detained and then

faeces were poured on their heads.

Sopheap said that he tried to mediate a solution himself whenever a witchcraft accusation

was made rather than refer them to the authorities.

He said the courts did not treat complaints of witchcraft seriously despite the serious

problems that could ensue if they were not dealt with swiftly.

"Of course, superstition has not been written in the constitution but it is

contained in the Khmer tradition. The people believe in it," he said.

He claimed he's often been asked by angry people for him to give them the go ahead

to kill a suspect.

He said he has found the best way to defuse such a situation is to make both sides

swear an oath - the accused swear they are not practicing black magic and the

accusers accept this and swear not to harm them.

He said this usually signaled an end to the dispute because in the same way people

believe in magic they believe in the power of a sworn oath.

He blamed most of the problems on the krou whom he says feed on people's superstitions

and use witchcraft as a way of explaining away their own incompetence or lack of

knowledge.

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