Malawi’s high court has sentenced to death a man who murdered a young albino, an unprecedented penalty in a country which has seen a surge in attacks and killings of people with albinism.

Willard Mikaele, then 28, was convicted of killing 19-year-old Mphatso Pensulo in the southern district of Thyolo in 2017.

“He planned to kill an albino so as to get rich fast as advised by the herbalist,” judge Maclean Kamwambe said in handing down the sentence on Friday in Thyolo.

“It has been reiterated that there will be times when death sentence shall be unavoidable due to the circumstances and that it should be reserved for such occasions,” the judge said.

Malawi has not carried out any executions since 1994, with death sentences commuted to life imprisonment.

CRIME SPREE

The verdict suggests a growing awareness by the Malawian authorities of the attacks on albinos, said Ikponwosa Ero, the UN independent expert on albinism.

“I am watching with keen interest, what seems like an awakening on the part of the government of Malawi vis-a-vis the terrible crime spree that has been going on in the country against persons with albinism,” she said, while expressing strong opposition to the death penalty.

Malawi, one of the world’s poorest and most aid-dependent countries, has experienced a surge in violent attacks on people with albinism since late 2014.

In many cases those with albinism are targeted for their body parts to be used in witchcraft rituals meant to bring wealth and luck.

In a June 2018 report, rights group Amnesty International said that since November 2014 there had been 148 crimes reported against people with albinism, with at least 21 deaths.

Just 30 percent of those attacks have been properly investigated, according to official statistics, with only one murder and one attempted murder case successfully prosecuted.

President Peter Mutharika in March appointed a commission of inquiry to investigate the spate of attacks on people with albinism after coming under mounting criticism over his response to the attacks.

Albinism is a genetic disorder that causes a partial or total absence of pigmentation in the skin, hair and eyes.

As a result, in addition to discrimination, many albinos often experience eye problems and have a heightened risk of skin cancer.

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