At least 45 people are behind bars in Malawi on charges of witchcraft, although there is nothing in the country's laws to keep them there.
"The beliefs of the police and courts are becoming the law," George Thindwa, director of the Association for Secular Humanism (ASH), a local NGO, told IRIN. "The police are keeping people who have been accused of being witches, when it is actually the accusers that need to be taken to task."
Elderly women are most commonly accused of witchcraft, but people of all ages have been ostracized, jailed, attacked and even killed on suspicion of being witches.
Chigayo Tchale*, 75, has served almost two years of a three-year sentence at Maula prison in Lilongwe, Malawi's capital. The community where he lived accused him of practicing witchcraft after the unexplained death of a child.
"Since people are saying I'm a witch and should be in prison, it is up to them," he said with a shrug. "There's nothing I can do, I have been forsaken."
ASH has been campaigning for Tchale's release for months now, along with dozens of other people across the country wrongfully imprisoned because they were suspected of being witches.
Thindwa said the number of people could be in the hundreds, but witchcraft cases were difficult to track because the individuals were usually charged with other offences, such as a breach of the peace.
"Police are being clever with charges - the offence may not be there in our statutes, but they can still find excuses," said human rights activist Justin Dzonzi, a lawyer based in Blantyre, Malawi’s second city.
Suspected witches can live peacefully in their communities for years without incident, but one unexplained event can trigger a violent reaction.
After the sudden death of a child, and mysterious fires that destroyed three houses, the local Traditional Authority (Chief) in Usisya, in the northern district of Nkhata Bay, allegedly decreed that people's homes be searched for witchcraft-related charms. In the resulting witch-hunts suspected witches were beaten and dragged to the village's resident traditional healer.
After an intervention by ASH, the police arrested the traditional healer, but their role as herbalists and highly respected members of their communities is embedded in Malawian culture.
Traditional healer George Nseula talked openly about having chased accused witches from his village and demonstrated his method for distinguishing them by using two warmed sticks and a long rusty blade.
Malawi inherited a 1911 Witchcraft Act from the British, which assumes that it does not exist, and makes it an offence to accuse someone of practicing witchcraft, or for an individual to claim that they practice it.
Dzonzi said the legislation was "misplaced", considering that the overwhelming majority of the population believed in witchcraft.
|Witchcraft has always lived with us...it's older than Christianity or Islam. It's part of our Malawian tradition|
"Witchcraft has always lived with us," he said. "Here, it's older than Christianity or Islam. It's part of our Malawian tradition."
Dzonzi said traditional leaders, the police, and even magistrate’s court officials were more influenced by their beliefs than Malawi's laws or the constitution, which was only adopted in 1994.
"Magistrate’s courts are the problem - untrained clerks are making these judgments," said Thindwa. "It wouldn't happen at the high court, but cases take too long to reach that level."
Dzonzi agreed, saying that since most witchcraft cases affected the poor and legally naïve, they could not afford bail and could be held on remand for years even if they appealed.
Tchale said he understood little of his trial in the Chimutu magistrate’s court in northern Malawi because he is illiterate and struggled to understand the legal terminology.
"On one side is the government, the public opinion, the police – me, I'm just alone," he said.
Legal aid clinics assist those accused of witchcraft, and Dzonzi's human rights group, Justice Link, has run education campaigns in rural areas, but he said such efforts would continue to treat the symptoms until the lower courts and police stopped adapting the law to suit their beliefs.
The Director of Public Prosecution, Wezi Kayira, has promised to review the 45 cases of individuals imprisoned for witchcraft and the Malawi Law Commission is three months overdue in releasing its review of the Witchcraft Act. However, most of the public submissions heard by the Commission called for witchcraft to be criminalized.
* Tchale died at Maula prison shortly after being interviewed for this story