Bryant warns presidential candidates against ritual killings

Liberia's interim leader Gyude Bryant has warned any aspiring presidential candidates tempted to boost their chances by carrying out human sacrifices that they will be executed if caught.

"If you think you can take somebody's life in order to be president, or the speaker (of parliament) or a senator, without anything being done to you, then you are fooling yourself," Bryant told a press conference on Tuesday following a spate of ritual killings in this West African country.

"If you are caught and it is proven that you are guilty... I will sign the death warrant without any fear or favour," the interim leader continued.

"How can my people continue to live in fear? Leave them alone if you want human parts to be head of state, speaker or senator. You can not use my people to get what you want."

'Gboyo' -- the practice of killing people so that their body parts can be extracted and offered as sacrifices to bring power, wealth and success -- is an age-old practice in Liberia. And it is common for the number of these ritual killings to increase in the build-up to an election.

Liberia is due to hold crunch presidential and parliamentary polls on 11 October, that are designed to complete its transition to democracy after 14 years of civil war. So far about 50 people have expressed an interest in running for head of state.

Bryant, the chairman of the transitional government set up after an August 2003 peace deal, said the authorities would not hesitate to arrest and prosecute those involved in ritual killings, whatever their status.

"In fact, we have made some arrests of those linked to ritual murders and we will prosecute them," the interim leader said, without giving details.

Anyone convicted would face a firing squad or be hanged, he added.

Bryant's comments followed a spate of reports in the Liberian press of sacrificial killings across the country from Montserrado County, where the capital Monrovia is located, to River Gee in the south-east.

In the most recent case, newspapers reported that the body of a small boy had been discovered in a rubber plantation in Grand Bassa County, east of Monrovia. The boy's genitals were missing and his chest had been hacked open.

Bryant would not be the first Liberian president to impose the death penalty against those found guilty of ritual killings.

In the late 1970s, then-president William Tolbert signed the death warrant of several government officials, accused of procuring human body parts for Gboyo rituals.

The issue of sacrificial killings in Liberia came to light more recently in January in Maryland County in the extreme southeast, where Bryant himself comes from.

A crowd of angry youths armed with sticks and metal bars broke into the police station in the port town of Harper and beat up a group of suspected ritual killers who had been detained there. A dawn-to-dusk curfew was imposed and the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) hurriedly dispatched extra peacekeepers to the town.