YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – A Catholic priest in Malawi is one of a dozen people convicted over the murder of a man living with albinism.

MacDonald Masambuka, 22, was brutally murdered in 2018.

In a judgment April 29, a High Court in Malawi concluded that the 12 people, including the priest (Masambuka’s brother), a hospital staff member, and a police officer  plotted to kill Masambuka to extract his bones, hoping to  benefit financially.

“MacDonald was betrayed by those he had trust in, namely the brother, the priest, the policeman, and the clinical officer. These are positions of trust,” said the country’s public prosecutions director Steve Kayuni.

Justice Dorothy NyaKaunda Kamanga, who issued the verdict, described the killing as  “a violation of the right to human life and the greatest violation of the rights to life and integrity for persons with albinism.”

Since 2014, Malawi has witnessed a wave of assaults against people living with albinism, as their body parts are extracted and used for rituals with the belief that they could bring luck and wealth.

The Secretary General of the Episcopal Conference of Malawi, Father Henry Saindi, says the church was shocked at the involvement of a Catholic priest in the murder, and expressed hope that the killing of Masambuka “would help in establishing the underlying issues pertaining to the killings considering the cadre of personalities involved in the murder of MacDonald Masambuka, as besides the Catholic priest, a police officer and a medical officer were also involved.”

In an interview with Crux, the priest said, “Malawi has the worst case of killings, attacks and abductions of persons with albinism in Africa.”

Following are excerpts of that interview:

Crux: When you learned that a Catholic priest was involved in the murder of 22-year-old MacDonald Masambuka, a man living with albinism, in 2018, what was your reaction?

Saindi: When it came to our attention that a Catholic priest was involved in the gruesome killing of MacDonald Masambuka in 2018, we looked at the case as one of the numerous cases of attacks, abductions, and killings of this vulnerable group in Malawi.

Particularly, we expected that, perhaps, this case would help in establishing the underlying issues pertaining to the killings considering the cadre of personalities involved in the murder of MacDonald Masambuka, as besides the Catholic priest, a police officer and a medical officer were also involved. However, we were shocked about this news, for we never expected a priest to be involved and we just prayed for justice to prevail so that the truth should be established.

Looking at these factors, the case was a unique one and our governance and human rights arm of the church, the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, did all we can to ensure that justice takes its course.

For example, we have been monitoring this case in court since 2018 along with the Association of Persons with Albinism in Malawi (APAM) through legally mentoring and coaching witnesses on the case and providing psychosocial support to some of the witnesses. Thus, we are very excited and gratified that justice has finally been served on this case although there were delays concluding the matter.

Obviously, this was not an isolated incident. What is the scale of albino killings in Malawi?

The killing of persons with albinism in Malawi is a very serious human rights challenge facing the society at large. In fact, Malawi has the worst case of killings, attacks, and abductions of persons with albinism in Africa. Since 2013 there have been slightly over 200 cases officially reported in the country. This is the highest number of the cases recorded in one country on the continent in the same period.

What factors drive the phenomenon?

There are several factors driving the undesirable situation but the following feature highly: myths, disinformation, misinformation and misbeliefs surrounding albinism and persons with albinism.

The myths are so rife that, for instance, some people believe that one can get rich with bones or any body tissues of a person with albinism; poverty is also driving some people to venture into the gruesome acts; inadequate security in rural areas where the majority of persons with albinism in Malawi (87 percent) live; impunity in the justice system and delays to dispose of cases in the criminal justice system are also contributing to the escalation of the cases; failure to locate or establish the market for body parts of persons with albinism is also adversely affecting efforts to combat this critical human rights violation; inadequate knowledge on disability rights and laws that protect persons with albinism among law enforcement agents is another drawback.

Additionally, poor funding of law enforcement agencies and inadequate investigative skills and techniques among police officers compromises the fight against these criminal activities.

How has the church been working to change the situation?

The Catholic Church has prioritized these detestable and inhumane acts and the human rights plight of persons with albinism has been on its (church) human rights agenda since the country started officially recording and reporting the cases. For example, the church, through CCJP, has been implementing project interventions in some of the districts that are worst affected by the attacks and killings where communities, persons with albinism and their families as well as local duty bearers (traditional and religious leaders and teachers) have been trained on access to justice and security for persons with albinism and other fundamental rights and freedoms.

The church has also built the capacity of police investigators and prosecutors and judicial officers on laws that protect persons with albinism. Community protection structures, such as Community Policing Forums, have also been trained on provision of security at the community level.

At the national level the church, through CCJP, has been engaging and lobbying national accountability bodies and duty bearers such as the Malawi Police Service, Ministry of Justice, the Judiciary, Malawi Human Rights Commission and the Department of Disability and Elderly Affairs to scale up efforts on protecting persons with albinism. CCJP has also been monitoring the implementation of the National Action Plan on Persons with Albinism (2018-2022) since it (CCJP) is one of the non-state actors in the national task force in the implementation of this National Action Plan.

To ably generate evidence on the human rights plight of this marginalized group CCJP has also been conducting research studies, surveys and investigations into particular human rights issues affecting persons with albinism in order to influence government to devise appropriate interventions to protect and safeguard rights of these people comprehensively.