In the 21st century:

A young woman was stripped naked and burned alive at the stake in Papua New Guinea, possibly because she was accused of being a witch, newspapers reported on Wednesday.

The woman, believed to be between 16 and 20 years of age, was blindfolded, gagged and lashed to a pole on a pyre of tyres and firewood on a garbage dump in Mount Hagen, a witness told the Post-Courier newspaper.

‘The girl was stripped naked and could not shout for assistance or resist as she was tightly strapped and her mouth gagged,’ said Jessie James, 21, who lives in a settlement near the town in PNG’s volatile Highlands region.

He said several men who had arrived with the woman in a truck then poured petrol over her and set the pyre ablaze.

Highlands divisional police commander Simon Kauba told the paper he was appalled by the crime.

‘I don’t know the right words to describe it but it’s barbaric … can you find the best word to describe such acts which are rampant here?’ Mr Kauba said, pledging to track down and prosecute the killers.

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The country’s Post-Courier newspaper reported Thursday that more than 50 people were killed in two Highlands provinces last year for allegedly practicing sorcery.

In a well-publicized case last year, a pregnant woman gave birth to a baby girl while struggling to free herself from a tree. Villagers had dragged the woman from her house and hung her from the tree, accusing her of sorcery after her neighbor suddenly died.

She and the baby survived, according to media reports.

Killings of witches, or sangumas, is not a new phenomenon in rural areas of the country.

Emory University anthropology Professor Bruce Knauft, who lived in a village in the western province of Papua New Guinea in the early 1980s, traced family histories for 42 years and found that 1 in 3 adult deaths were homicides — “the bulk of these being collective killings of suspected sorcerers,” he wrote in his book, From Primitive to Postcolonial in Melanesia and Anthropology.

In recent years, as AIDS has taken a toll in the nation of 6.7 million people, villagers have blamed suspected witches — and not the virus — for the deaths.

According to the United Nations, Papua New Guinea accounts for 90 percent of the Pacific region’s HIV cases and is one of four Asia-Pacific countries with an epidemic.

“We’ve had a number of cases where people were killed because they were accused of spreading HIV or AIDS,” Mauba said.

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