SYDNEY: A 'berserk' crowd used bows and arrows, knives and axes to hack to death seven people including two small children accused of sorcery, a trial in Papua New Guinea has heard.
Ninety-seven of the 122 people charged pleaded not guilty to wilful murder, with the rest, who were released on bail, failing to show up to the court in the Pacific nation's Madang province, local media reported.
The frenzied killings happened in April 2014 after men from six villages met to plot the assault on Sakiko village where those suspected of sorcery had sought refuge, according to the PNG Post Courier.
"Two children, aged three and five, were wrenched from their mothers' arms and chopped to pieces," it added. Five adults were also killed.
The newspaper called the trial the "biggest sorcery-related court case in the country".
State prosecutor Francis Popeu described the gruesome murders as "planned with all aiding and abetting each other with the common intent to kill".
PNG's The National newspaper, in a report earlier this month, said the killings were "a kind done in certain cult practices as the people killed were slashed from their legs up and their heads were cut off and taken away".
"Black magic" and cannibalism sometimes occur in PNG, a sprawling and poor nation where many people do not accept natural causes as an explanation for misfortune, illness, accidents or death.
Rights campaigners have long pushed for justice for sorcery-related attacks, spurred by the horrific murder of a young woman accused of witchcraft in 2013.
In that case, Kepari Leniata, 20, was stripped naked, tied up, doused in petrol and burned alive in front of a crowd by relatives of a boy who died following an illness in the Mount Hagen area.
Following Leniata's murder, in 2013 PNG repealed the 1971 Sorcery Act which had provided for a reduced sentence for anyone who committed assault or murder if they believed their victim had been committing acts of "sorcery".
It also revived the death penalty to reduce rampant crime.