Twenty-nine people accused of being members of an alleged cannibal cult have been arrested in Papua New Guinea for killing seven suspected sorcerers, eating their brains raw and making soup from their penises.
"They don't think they've done anything wrong; they admit what they've done openly," said the police commander of Madang province, Anthony Wagambie. Cult members reportedly wanted to weed out witchdoctors who charged excessive sums for services such as casting out evil spirits. By eating their victims' organs, they believed they would themselves gain supernatural powers, Mr Wagambie told the Associated Press news agency.
Armed with home-made guns fashioned from rubber, and long-bladed knives they consider to be "possessed", the accused have allegedly killed four men and three women in isolated jungle territory since April. Four were murdered last week.
The 29 – who include eight women, a 13-year-old boy and a teacher in his 50s – were arrested in a raid on their village, near the town of Madang. Two men, including a local councillor believed to be the cult leader, are still on the run. Police expect to make another 100 arrests over the weekend.
Many Papua New Guineans still believe in sorcery – known locally as sanguma or puripuri – often blaming it for deaths, accidents, illnesses and misfortunes. While black magic is prohibited under the 1971 Sorcery Act, "good" magic – aimed at curing illness or banishing evil spirits – is legal.
The Law Reform Commission recently proposed repealing the act, following a spate of murders of people suspected of practising black magic.
Mr Wagambie said those arrested believed their victims were sorcerers who had been extorting money from poor villagers and demanding – in addition to their traditional payment of a pig, a bag of rice and 1,000 kina (about £300) – sex with their clients' wives or teenage daughters.
One man told The National, a local newspaper: "We ate their brains raw." Cult members also drank their victims' blood, and cooked and ate body parts "such as livers, hearts, penis and others," he added.
Mr Wagambie said the cult had 700 to 1,000 members in the remote interior in the north-east. All of them might have eaten human flesh, he said.
Cannibalism was traditionally practised in Papua New Guinea before the colonial era and has survived in isolated pockets, where human flesh is known as "long pig". Last year, a man was reportedly found eating his screaming newborn baby during a sorcery initiation ceremony. In 2009, a young woman suspected of being a witch was stripped, gagged and burnt alive at the stake.
One MP, Ken Fairweather, told a radio station "nearly everybody" still believed that black magic was used to curse, poison and kill. "There's even political leaders today [who] are terrified of puripuri, absolutely terrified."
The 29 cult members appeared in court this week but their case was adjourned for further inquiries. Mr Wagambie said no remains of their victims had been found. "They're probably all eaten up," he reflected.