Seaga weighs in on Obeah debate

(Jamaica Observer) – Three Bills tabled in the Senate on Friday to repeal antiquated laws providing for the flogging of criminals, have triggered another debate on whether laws out of sync with modern culture should not all be repealed.

The Bills were – An Act to Repeal all legislation to make provision for flogging and whipping in judicial sentencing; An Act to Amend the Obeah Act; An Act to Amend the Larceny Act.

They were tabled by Minister of Justice Senator Mark Golding, following his disclosure last week, that the Cabinet had approved draft legislation to repeal the Acts, in keeping with modern trends in human rights jurisprudence in relation to corporal punishment.

The Bills seeking to address flogging as a punishment for larceny, especially praedial larcency, have been the focus of attention since the announcement. But, there is growing interest in the Bill seeking to amend the Obeah Act which also provides for flogging as punishment.

The 1898 Obeah Act not only provides for the flogging of persons suspected of practising obeah, a Jamaican form of voodoo but equates the African diasporic ritual, Myal, with the practice of Obeah. Section 2 of the Act states: “Obeah shall be deemed to be of one and the same meaning as Myalism”.

According to the Obeah Act, any person convicted of participating in these rituals “shall be liable to imprisonment, with or without hard labour, for a period not exceeding 12 months, and in addition thereto, or in lieu thereof, to whipping: Provided such whipping shall be carried out subject to the provisions of the Flogging Regulation Act”.

The Flogging Regulation Act states that no sentence of flogging shall be carried out, except with an instrument approved by the minister.

The minister’s order requires that the instrument with which sentences of flogging shall be carried out is the cat-o-nine tails, which is a rope whip consisting of a round wooden handle twenty inches long, and one to one and one-half inches in diameter with nine thongs of cotton cord attached to one end of the handle, each thong being thirty inches long and not more than three-sixteenths of an inch in diameter, and knotted at the end or whipped at the end with cotton twine.

Former Prime Minister Edward Seaga, under whose administration Myal was elevated to national importance as an aspect of Jamaica’s African religious heritage during and after slavery, said he had no idea that the law had equated Myal with Obeah.

“If that is so, it is totally wrong, Seaga said. “Myalism was developed during slavery as a means for the slaves to express themselves spiritually, because they didn’t have a single language. It is still called Myal in St Thomas, but it eventually became Zion Revival, in other places”.

According to Seaga, Myal was created in Jamaica by African slaves, from a mixture of African religions, cultures and languages.

“Obeah is not a religion, it is a spiritual doctor and it is totally wrong to mix obeah with Myal,” he commented.

Jamaican-born Adam McIntyre, programme coordinator for the Department of Community Rehabilitation in the Cayman Islands’ prisons and author of the new book, Understanding the Criminal Mind, thinks that it is outrageous that Jamaica should continuing to beat them for being part of an ancestral religion that has suffered much discrimination.

“I believe all forms of beatings as punishment for crime is wrong, because it only breeds violence in those who are beaten. They are led to think that violence is the only solution for crime,” he said.

Commissioner of Jamaica’s Department of Correctional Services, Lt Colonel Sean Prendergast, refused to comment on the issue of floggings as punishment for crimes. He insisted that his job was to carry out the law.

“As Commissioner of Corrections, it is my responsibility to carry out the orders of the courts,” he stated.

Asked when was the last time he had carried out a requirement for flogging an inmate, he said that earlier this year a prisoner who had completed a long sentence for rape was required to be flogged before release.

“I wrote the Attorney General and, based on his instructions, the flogging was not carried out,” he said. However, he admitted that there were others in the prisons whose sentences were to end with lashes. However, it now seems highly unlikely for that aspect of their sentences to be executed.

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