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1,000 alleged witches arrested, drugged

Authorities in Gambia have rounded up about 1,000 people and forced them to drink hallucinogens in a witch-hunting campaign, a rights group said Wednesday.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Authorities in Gambia have rounded up about 1,000 people and forced them to drink hallucinogens in a witch-hunting campaign that is terrorizing the tiny West African nation, an international rights group said Wednesday.

Amnesty International called on the government of President Yahya Jammeh, who seized power in a 1994 coup and has claimed he can cure AIDS, to halt the campaign and bring those responsible to justice.

Gambian officials could not immediately be reached for comment and the government has issued no statements in reaction to the report.

Authorities began inviting "witch doctors," who combat witches, to come from nearby Guinea soon after the death earlier this year of the president's aunt. Jammeh "reportedly believes that witchcraft was used in her death," the London-based rights group said.

Since then, "witch doctors" — accompanied by police, soldiers, intelligence agents and Jammeh's personal guards — have forcibly taken about 1,000 alleged witches from their villages and spirited them to secret locations, Amnesty said. About 300 of them were taken to Jammeh's personal farm in his native Kanilai, east of the capital, the group said.

'Forced to drink unknown substances'
Most victims were held for three to five days and all are believed to have been released, Amnesty spokeswoman Eliane Drakopoulos told The Associated Press. But many have been terrorized by the campaign and fear it could spread, she said.

Victims are being "forced to drink unknown substances that cause them to hallucinate and behave erratically," the rights group said in a statement. "Many are then forced to confess to being a witch. In some cases, they are also severely beaten, almost to the point of death."

The mysterious liquid prompted serious kidney problems among many, and two people are known to have died after being subjected to the ordeal, Amnesty said.

The most recent incident, on March 9, took place in a village called Sintet, which was surrounded by paramilitary police armed with guns and shovels before dawn. Amnesty quoted a witness as saying that security forces vowed "that anyone who tries to escape will be buried six feet under."

About 300 men and women were forced at gunpoint into buses that took them to Jammeh's farm at Kanilai.

"Once there, they were stripped and forced to drink 'dirty water' from herbs and were also bathed with these dirty herbs" that caused diarrhea and vomiting, the witness said. "I stayed there for five days ... I cannot believe that this type of treatment is taking place in Gambia. It is from the dark ages."

Many have fled the country
Hundreds fled to neighboring Senegal after their villages were attacked, Amnesty said.

In 2007, Jammeh declared he had discovered a cure for AIDS and began treating patients inside the presidential palace, using herbs and incantations. His dictatorial regime has cracked down harshly on critics, especially the press.

On March 8, authorities arrested Halifa Sallah, who has written about the "witch doctors" for the main opposition newspaper, Foroyya. Sallah, who was a presidential candidate in 2006, has since been charged with sedition and spying, Amnesty said.