Tanzania can do better and get justice for man targeted because of albinism

Sunday April 08 2018

Children with albinism queue to receive factor-50 sunscreen in Mitindo Primary School in Nyawilimilwa, Mwanza region of Tanzania, November 21, 2009. More than 70 people with albinism have been murdered in the country in the past decade, their body parts removed to make charms and spells. FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

It looks like it should have been a classic open-and-shut case. But for reasons that frustrate experts, too often justice is not served in attacks on people with albinism in sub-Saharan Africa.

On April 10, 2010, Mr X, who wishes to remain anonymous, was attacked near his home, in a rural eastern Tanzania.

Mr X, like approximately 200,000 people in Tanzania, has albinism, a genetic condition that leaves one’s skin, hair and eyes with little or no pigmentation. Some believe people with albinism are magical beings, and their hair, bones and skin can sell for thousands of dollars on the black market to be used to make lucky charms. It is said of people with albinism that they are “ghosts,” who “do not die, they disappear”.

On the day of the attack, Mr X was chopping firewood, when two men approached asking for tobacco; the men soon began to hit Mr X with sticks until he lost consciousness. When he regained consciousness, most of his left arm had been severed.

Eight years later, he is still waiting for justice. An international committee recently ruled that “his case remains in total impunity”. The committee directed the Tanzanian government to develop a plan to remediate Mr X and pursue his attackers. Following the committee’s directive, the government has taken no action.

Were murdered


Meanwhile, Mr X has disappeared. Advocates who have worked with him to bring his case to court, fear he may have been murdered.

Attacks on people with albinism have become more common in recent years. A 14-year-old girl with albinism, and her 15-month old brother, were murdered in South Africa last month. Hundreds of attacks have been documented across the continent in the past decade, leaving people with albinism fearing for their safety. In some countries, according to Ikponwosa Ero, the UN Independent Expert on albinism, people with albinism “may face total extinction”.

Attacks on people with albinism in Tanzania, in particular, have been rampant. Recently the authorities have taken measures to protect its citizens, instituting, for example, a programme to regulate spiritual healers. The programme is intended to make it harder for “witchdoctors” — who may use the body parts of people with albinism — to conduct business.

But spurring local authorities to take action in these cases has frequently proven difficult.

In the case of Mr X, a trial took place three weeks after the attack. But the accused was set free, when Mr X told the court that the man on trial had not attacked him. Indeed, Mr X said he knew his attackers; they were his neighbours.

The men Mr X fingered were never brought to trial, and Mr X’s arm has never been recovered. Though he was a self-sufficient farmer, after the attack he has been unable to tend his farm.

His application

He was told by local authorities that they had done all they could. He was told he could pursue a civil case against his attackers, but to initiate proceedings, he would have to submit his application to the High Court in Tanzania’s capital, Dar es Salaam. Mr X did not have the money to travel 300 kilometres to the capital to pursue his case.

His case was kept alive thanks in part to a number of Tanzanian-based organisations dedicated to helping people with albinism.

He and his legal team appealed, via writing, to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2014, based in Geneva, Switzerland.

Three years later, after a lengthy correspondence with local and national government, the committee ruled that Mr X’s “access to justice has been significantly limited”.

The committee wrote: “His case remains in total impunity eight years after the attack he suffered.”

In great detail, the committee goes on to tick off all the ways Mr X’s rights were severely denied. They note: “The suffering experienced by the author owing to the lack of action by the State party… becomes a cause of revictimisation, and amounts to psychological torture.”

Human decency

They also note that the government is obligated to provide him with an effective remedy, and the support he needs to live independently again.

The Tanzanian government was given until February 18 to respond to the committee with a plan of action, detailing how justice would finally be served in the case. To date, the government has provided no response to the committee, or further information to Mr X.

This is a missed opportunity for the government to show that no matter what may have happened in the past, it is now serious about stopping attacks against people with albinism in Tanzania.

For Mr X, for the approximately 200,000 people with albinism in Tanzania, and in the name of basic justice and human decency, it is time for the authorities to abandon their hide-your-head-in-the-sand approach, and aggressively pursue Mr X’s attackers.

Alison Hillman is a senior program officer with the Open Society Human Rights Initiative.