Doctors in Brazil say that a two-year-old boy whose stepfather inserted at least 31 sewing needles into his body over several weeks, as part of a black magic ritual, is out of immediate danger after three operations to remove them.
The child still has nine needles embedded in his body. But hospital staff in Salvador de Bahi, where he is being treated, now expect him to make a full recovery after removing dozens of the most dangerous ones from his heart, lungs, liver, bladder, intestines and neck.
"We think this child's story will have a happy ending," his surgeon, Jose Siqueira, told the AFP news agency yesterday, almost two weeks after news of his plight emerged, sparking soul-searching about child abuse in Brazil and the excesses of some Afro-Brazilian religions.
The child, whose name has been withheld, was brought to hospital by his mother in mid-December after he began vomiting and complaining of severe stomach pains. An X-ray revealed numerous sewing needles deep inside his body, many of which were embedded in vital organs.
His stepfather, a bricklayer called Roberto Carlos Magalhaes, was promptly arrested. It soon emerged that he and his mistress, Angelina Ribeiro dos Santos, who has also been detained, had treated him as a living voodoo doll in an effort to hurt the child's mother.
"I did this two or three times a week during one month," the 30-year-old Magalhaes confessed during a prison interview with Brazil's Globo TV. "It was truly an unbearable suffering. It was to get back at the boy's mother. I thought the needles would work their way through his body and kill the boy. It was a way to kill without anyone discovering."
The couple drugged the boy with a mixture of wine and water, Mr Magalhaes claimed, adding that Dos Santos then held him down while several needles were inserted during each session. Their victim was apparently too drunk to cry until the alcohol wore off.
Various pieces of black magic paraphernalia were found by police investigating the case. Dos Santos apparently paid to have the needles – which were up to two inches long – blessed by a woman who practised the Afro-Brazilian religion of Candomble.
The grisly scandal has outraged Brazil, which despite being predominantly Catholic supports many non-mainstream religions, most of which were exported from West Africa during the era of slavery. Leading figures in smaller churches are now attempting to distance themselves from it.
"This is the result of stupidity, of people who take advantage of the ignorance of others by extracting money from them under the cover of some kind of religiosity," Atila Nunes Neto, president of the Brazilian federation of Umbanda, one such religion, told Agence France Presse.
Jose Flavio Pessoa de Barros, an anthropology professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, said that coverage of the case, which at one stage prompted a mob to throw stones at the police station where the suspects are being held, is reinforcing negative stereotypes. "The expression 'black magic' is filled with prejudices against African religions," he contended.
The child is meanwhile being kept in hospital, under the watchful eye of his mother, and is likely to undergo further operations to remove needles that remain in his spine. He is also receiving strong antibiotics to prevent infection from rust on the needles.