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Senators to push for decriminalisation of obeah

BY BALFORD HENRY Senior staff reporter balfordh@jamaicaobserver.com

Tuesday, February 19, 2013    

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TWO Senators from either side of the upper chamber are planning on a joint motion seeking the decriminalisation of the practise of obeah in Jamaica.

Government senator Lambert Brown and his Opposition counterpart Tom Tavares-Finson told the Jamaica Observer on Friday they were planning on taking up Minister of Justice Senator Mark Golding's advice that they bring a substantive motion to the Senate to have it debated.

Golding's suggestion was sparked by a comment from Senator Tavares-Finson during the minister's closing contribution to the debate on removing flogging/whipping from current Acts of Parliament, including the Obeah Act.

"Where did I get the impression that obeah would be removed from the books?" Tavares-Finson interrupted.

"I don't know where you got that impression from, I didn't say that," Golding responded, before recalling that it was also raised by Brown during his presentation to the debate. However, Golding suggested that if the senators felt strongly about the issue, either of them could table a motion to have it debated.

Senator Tavares-Finson told the Observer after the sitting that he felt strongly about it and had raised it with Brown after the adjournment and they felt that they should bring a joint motion because of similar views on the issue.

"I believe that the issue of its criminality is a leftover from slavery and colonialism which should be removed, because it traces its root to religious practices in West Africa and should be preserved as part of our heritage," Tavares-Finson stated.

"Why are we criminalising people for their religious beliefs and practices?" Brown asked when the Observer raised the issue with him. "They are not harming anybody: Belief kills and belief cures."

"Both of us have discussed the possibility of raising it a motion which would be across the aisle," Brown also admitted.

Friday the Senate voted unanimously to remove whipping and flogging from the laws. The senators voted in approval of a new law reform Bill to repeal all legislation making provisions for whipping and lashing in judicial sentencing, and to amend provisions of enactment relating to and referring to flogging and whipping as penalties for certain criminal offences and for connected matters.

They also approved the specific removal of whipping as a criminal penalty from the Larceny Act and to abolish whipping as a penalty for certain offences under the Obeah Act.

Despite the removals, however, Senator Tavares-Finson told the Observer after the sitting that he was still unsatisfied with the changes to the Obeah Act. According to him, apart from the act of criminality, there was also the provision linking Myal to obeah.

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".

But, Senator Tavares-Finson feels that it was unfortunate that the two were linked, because while obeah is a religious practice, Myal is a cultural activity.

Former Prime Minister Edward Seaga came out against the link as well. In an article in the Observer in November, Seaga said that Myal has been openly promoted over the years by the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission.

"Myalism was developed during slavery as a means for the slaves to express themselves spiritually, because they didn't have a single language," Seaga explained then.

According to the Obeah Act, any person convicted of participating in the religious practice "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."

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