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Straight from the sorce

News

Cite as: December 2009 83(12) LIJ, p.31


Black magic law is all in a day’s work for an Australian lawyer at the Papua New Guinean Department of Public Prosecutions.

On any given day, Nick Goodenough battles volcanoes, tsunamis, malaria, cholera, black magic, the language barrier and violent gangs in Australia’s near neighbour Papua New Guinea (PNG).

However, the former Victoria Legal Aid (VLA) criminal law section manager said the most unusual aspect of his working week for the fledgling PNG Department of Public Prosecutions was sorcery-related murders.

Amnesty International believes hundreds of accused sorcerers are tortured and killed by villagers every year in PNG.

Mourning tribesmen often level sorcery accusations after the unexpected death of a loved one. The tribesmen believe the death was caused “supernaturally” and decide who was responsible and plot the “punishment”.

Those who dabble in potions – that is, have knowledge of mixing poisons or herbal medicines – or the elderly, who are unlikely to fight back, are usually targeted for the literal witch hunt.

Accused sorcerers are interrogated, tortured and killed by various methods.

Mr Goodenough has been in “the land of the unexpected” since July 2008 after joining the Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department Strongim Gavman (pidgin for “Strengthen Government”) program to improve and expand the PNG DPP.

“Sorcery cannot be used as a defence but is often used as a motive for murder. If that is the case, then issues of provocation and mitigating factors arise, and it is more relevant on sentence,” he said.

“Sorcery takes up lots of court time. If there is a killing, chances are it will involve alcohol or sorcery, although you can often read other motivations in the background of the brief,” he said.

While authorities have battled the killings by increasing penalties, defining sorcery and its ramifications in court is far from black letter law due to PNG’s kaleidoscope of cultures.

“There are more than 800 different languages with that many differing cultural beliefs, and what is sorcery in one custom may not be in another,” Mr Goodenough said.

For instance, men are normally targeted near the coastlines and women in the Highlands.

And those targeted have little chance of survival. There are few police, hospitals and doctors outside the major centres and some villages are only reached by a jungle trek.

Mr Goodenough is based in Madang, the capital of Madang Province on the northern coast of PNG.

He said one of his stranger tasks had been to organise a national conference on combatting sorcery. “After my time here I don’t think sorcery is that unusual anymore, but it is a completely alien concept in the Australian courts.”

Mr Goodenough said while the similarities in his new role compared with his role at the VLA were greater than the differences, those differences were quite stark.

“Much of the [day-to-day] work is the same sort of thing, though we basically operate on the Queensland Criminal Code. Case law is case law, the files have statements, there are witnesses, police, judges, defence lawyers and the public prosecution,” he said.

“But there is a massive resources issue and the police can have difficulty in [locating] witnesses. They actually have to go and search for them. People move around a lot and communication is poor. Often police cars don’t even have fuel.”

He also said there was no law library and, while English is used in court, getting translations from the village language to Pidgin then to English presents a new set of problems.

“There is isolation, personally and professionally. We don’t always have internet and telephone access. And in Melbourne you can go have a beer and debrief with colleagues, but the legal fraternity here is quite small.”

Before his VLA role, Mr Goodenough worked for the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions in Adelaide, Canberra and Sydney.

He is no stranger to developing island countries, having taken leave without pay to work in Fiji in 1999 and the Solomon Islands in 2004.

Fiji, the Solomon Islands and PNG are all common law countries.

Mr Goodenough and his family made the move for the challenge, to experience other ways of life and to fully appreciate what they have in Melbourne when they return to Australia.

Soon after his arrival, Mr Goodenough was lying in bed listening to what he thought were jet engines warming up at the airport before realising it was the nearby volcano.

His 4-year-old daughter has missed school due to cholera and tsunami warnings and malaria is rife.

“There is a much heightened sense of security, you need to be aware of where you park and where you shop and at what time, you ensure your door is locked when you drive, and there is a lot of opportunistic crime.”

His Madang premises has panic buttons, a panic room, two-way radios and is surrounded by razor wire and patrolled at all times by a guard.

Mr Goodenough’s contract ends in July next year, subject to a possible extension.

Jason Gregory

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