PNG to revive death penalty, repeal sorcery laws

Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O'Neill has announced a renewed push for the death penalty, and life sentences for rape, saying that 'draconian' penalties were needed to tackle violent crime.

O'Neill said the impoverished Pacific nation would also repeal its controversial Sorcery Act, meaning any black magic killing would be treated as murder, while unveiling tough new punishments for drug and alcohol offences.

It follows a spate of horrific crimes against women including a beheading and the burning alive of a mother accused of witchcraft, as well as the gang rape of two foreigners last month, drawing international condemnation.

"There will be maximum penalties that have never been seen before in this country," O'Neill said, according to PNG media reports Wednesday.

"We are serious about addressing this issue. We will regulate and pass laws that some people in our country may find draconian. But the people are demanding it."

Central to the law and order push is a drive to revive the death penalty, which is currently in place for treason, piracy and wilful murder but has not been used since 1954, when PNG last carried out an execution.

O'Neill said the government would "strengthen it further" by reviewing existing laws to allow for its "full implementation", though it was not clear whether the scope of offences punishable by death would be broadened.

Any killing linked to accusations of sorcery would now be treated as a murder under a repeal of the Sorcery Act, which international human rights groups and the United Nations have been lobbying for.

Though it criminalises the practice of sorcery -- in which there is a widespread belief in PNG, where many people do not accept natural causes as an explanation for misfortune and death -- the 1974 act has been criticised.

Human rights groups said it led to an increase in false accusations by people against their enemies and gave the notion of sorcery a legitimacy it would not otherwise have had.

All rapes including those carried out in gangs would attract a penalty of life in prison without parole, with a new maximum 20-year jail term for making home-brew liquor and a ban on selling alcohol between 2am and noon.

Marijuana and other drug cultivation would be punishable by 50 years in prison; consumption of drugs would have a maximum 10-year jail term.

O'Neill said he would also propose the establishment of an isolated island prison for high-risk offenders including murderers and those serving a life sentence.

"I want to assure the country that we will review some of the legislation in respect of some of the behaviour that is now happening," O'Neill said.

The reforms are expected to come before PNG's parliament for debate later this month.