UK witchcraft trial raises awkward questions

Witchcraft murder necessitates urgent action to curb superstitious atrocities.

311_African migrants (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
311_African migrants
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
A witchcraft trial has captured the attention of the British public, not for what it reveals about the supernatural world, but for what it says about superstitions that have followed certain African migrants to their new home in Britain.
Kristy Bamu, a teenager, was tortured in a run-down housing estate over several days by his sister, Magalie Bamu and her fiancé, Eric Bikubi, until he was forced to admit that he was a sorcerer.  The couple were convicted of murder earlier this month and sentenced to 25 and 20 years, respectively.
Kristy Bamu received over 100 injuries, inflicted on him by the couple with a variety of instruments, such as a hammer, a metal bar, a pair of pliers and knives.  The purpose of the sadistic attacks were to rid his body of “evil spirits.”  On Christmas Day in 2010, Kristy was found drowned in a bathtub.  He was so weakened by the days of torture, that when Bikubi placed him in the bath for a cleansing ritual, Kristy was unable to keep his head above water.  Police have labeled the killing as one of the most horrific that they have seen.
In handing down the long sentences, the judge made clear that belief in witchcraft, no matter how sincere and genuine, is no defense to such brutal crimes.
Belief in voodoo, jinn and kindoki still thrives in many traditional communities in Africa.  Bamu and Bikubi are from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where belief in kindoki is still commonly found.  With increased African migration to Britain and other western countries, these practices are on the move as well.
Unfortunately, the Bamu case is not alone.
Grotesque cases have regularly hit the news over the past 10 years involving perpetrators motivated by a fear of witchcraft or spirit possession.  In 2001, the torso of a five-year old boy was found floating in the river Thames.  Given the name “Adam”, the child was a victim of a ritualistic killing and dismemberment.  Other parents, relatives, and foster careers have been convicted of torture, child abuse and manslaughter in relation to violence against young boys and girls, which police have linked to witchcraft fears.
As a result, a nationwide campaign in Britain is setting guidelines on how to identify the warning signs for ritualistic and faith-based abuse, in order to conduct more effective investigations into the crimes that might result from these beliefs.  Even with police in London investigating numerous open cases and social services departments notifying their caseworkers to be attentive to these types of circumstances, there are still fears that hundreds of so-called “possessed children” may still be subject to beatings, or worse.
London police haves investigated over 80 faith-based crimes during the past decade.  Officers are working with African communities to identify those people encouraging the practices, either by conducting exorcisms or otherwise promoting the stigmatization of children as “witches."  Popular awareness is being raised to help ensure that no such child falls between the cracks again.
Certain groups, however, argue that more needs to be done to protect children in these communities.  Africans Against Child Abuse has proposed that laws should be adopted in Britain which prohibit children from being branded as witches.  This has been a crime in the Congo for several years, now punishable by up to 3 years in prison.  Unfortunately, a recent survey reveals that in the Congolese capital of Kinshasa, 80 percent of the homeless children living on the streets were there because they had been banished from their homes due to allegations of witchcraft.
Some experts suggest that kindoki, as traditionally practiced in the Congo over the years, does not involve such acts of violence, focusing rather on the ability of certain healers to manipulate exterior forces by using charms or animal sacrifices.  The recent wave violence against children is instead the result of the collision of kindoki with forms of Christian fundamentalism that have become increasingly popular in the region over the past 20 years.  One London university has conducted a survey of African churches in London that reveals that 90 percent of attendees believe in kindoki.
Of course, it is difficult for British police and social workers to build trust in the communities and at the same time appear to criticize or demonize religious practices.  However, extremist practices that violate the criminal law have been successful addressed in the past, such as female genital mutilation and honor killings, where young girls unwilling to enter into arranged marriages, or who married boys that weren’t approved by the families, were viciously killed.
The arrival of each wave of new immigrants has always produced potential strains and frictions.  Differences in religion, culture and family practices can be addressed and reconciled over time.  Unfortunately, migration, motivated by economic needs and for indefinite periods, has largely replaced immigration, with its tacit or explicit acceptance that integration into the social and political life must eventually take place.  In the 21st century, assimilation has become optional.
Regardless, the state has an immediate and unqualified obligation to all children to see that they are not abused or mistreated, regardless of what beliefs, or superstitions, their relatives possess.  We cannot allow the introversion and insularity of these communities to establish barriers within which atrocities are committed against defenseless children.
The writer is a commentator who divides his time between the United Kingdom and Southern California. He has appeared on CNN, CNBC, BBC and Sky News, and has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Financial Times and The Economist.