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Last Updated: Friday, 3 June, 2005, 14:22 GMT 15:22 UK
Abuse case sparks new fears

By James Westhead
BBC education and family correspondent

It was only by chance that the eight-year-old girl escaped her ordeal.

Sita Kisanga wearing orange headscarf
Kisanga denied all the charges against her

She was found covered in cuts and bruises on the steps to her block of flats in Hackney, East London, one cold November morning.

The street warden who spotted her while patrolling the Woodberry Down estate said she seemed "freezing cold and terrified."

The shocking story she told revealed a litany of abuse by her own relatives - all committed Christians - apparently in the name of religion.

They believed the girl was a witch possessed by evil spirits, and thought beating her would help drive out the demons.

Children 'at risk'

Now police fear other children, especially within the West African community in London, may be at risk from similar religiously-motivated abuse.

The abuse culminated in both women forcing the child into a large plastic laundry bag to "throw her away for good"
James Westhead

The girl in this case was brought to Britain from Angola by her aunt - whom she called 'Mum' and who cannot be named for legal reasons.

The girl's real mother and father are believed to be dead. She and her aunt came to live with 35-year-old Sita Kisanga and her son in their flat in Hackney where the abuse began.

During the three-week trial at the Old Bailey, the girl told the court the two women and Kisanga's brother Sebastian Pinto had slapped, punched and kicked her repeatedly.

They beat her with belt buckles and a high-heeled shoe. She told police, " It's because my auntie says I have witchcraft. She dances and laughs when she hits me."

Sebastian Pinto arrives at court
Sebastian Pinto denied aiding and abetting child cruelty

At one point Kisanga pushed a kitchen knife into her chest drawing blood.

On other occasions the women woke the girl during the night and rubbed chilli-peppers into her eyes...apparently to stop her carrying out witchcraft at night.

The abuse culminated in both women forcing the child into a large plastic laundry bag to "throw her away for good" , planning to drown her in a nearby river, before changing their minds at the last minute.

An expert in African religion, Dr Richard Hoskins of King's College, London, who advises the Metropolitan Police on religiously-motivated crime, gave evidence at the trial.

He says belief in 'ndoki' - the word for witchcraft - is widespread in West Africa and among some immigrant communities in London, fuelled by a massive growth in small fundamentalist Christian churches.

The abusers in this case - who worshipped at such a church in Hackney - may have believed they were carrying out a form of exorcism, driving out evil spirits.

Dr Hoskins says there are a growing number of reports of children being abused as a result of accusations of witchcraft and social services are currently investigating four other almost identical cases - although he says this may be only the "tip of an iceberg".

Special unit

The Metropolitan Police are so concerned they have now set up a special unit specifically aimed at tackling religiously-motivated child abuse, called Project Violet.

It was sheer chance that this little girl was rescued in time
Dr Richard Hoskins

The head of the new unit, Detective Superintendent Chris Bourlet, admits they have no idea yet of the real scale of the problem but "the aim will be prevention, working with churches and communities - not to challenge their beliefs but to raise their awareness of child abuse."

The team of around five officers will gather intelligence on the problem and try and persuade churches to follow child protection procedures.

The police are haunted by the case of Victoria Climbie who was also abused and then eventually murdered by relatives five years ago who similarly believed she was possessed by evil spirits.

There are striking parallels with this latest case and in the words of Dr Richard Hoskins: "It was sheer chance that this little girl was rescued in time.

"If she hadn't been then the injuries and abuse would in all probability have escalated and she could well have ended up as the next Victoria Climbie."

See the church the girl's relatives attended



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