Inter Press Service, May 14, 1998

Human Rights-Jamaica: the Return of the Tamarind Switch

KINGSTON, (May 13) IPS - Barbados began it first, Trinidad and Tobago came next and four years ago it grabbed the headlines in Jamaica when the whip as a method of punishment for the convicted felon was revived.

Prior to the 1994 episode, when a high court judge in this northern Caribbean island ordered that a 23 year old man be whipped as part of his sentence for stabbing and crippling the mother of his girlfriend, that form of punishment had not been ordered for 25 years.

Now the issue is once again in the news as the courts are now battling over the case of two Jamaican men who ran afoul of the law and for whom the courts have ordered whipping as part of their punishment.

Defense attorneys for the men found guilty of rape are challenging the constitutionality of the 12 lashes "to be shared equally between the two offenders", prescribed by Supreme Court Judge David Pitter.

Human rights activists as well as ordinary Jamaicans are divided in their views on the issue. Some strongly object to this form of punishment, calling it a barbaric reminder of the days of slavery.

Others say it is unconstitutional as the island's constitution states that no person should be subjected to torture or to inhumane or degrading punishment. Hilaire Sobers, an attorney and human rights advocate describes this form of punishment as "a cruel and inhumane act... the sole objective being to inflict pain."

Other Jamaicans, however, see the issue differently.

"You need to make an example of these people, " says Luke Young, a clerk in an insurance company. " Not only should they go to prison to spend some time there but they should be flogged in public squares... and the people whom they perpetrated these crimes against, should be given a chance to administer some of the lashes."

Some also argue that the more heinous the nature of the crime committed, the more severe should be the penalty meted out.

Under Jamaican Law, "flogging" means "Corporal Punishment administered with a Cat-O-Nine tails" while "whipping" means "Corporal Punishment administered with a Tamarind switch".

The cat-o-nine tails is a plaited rope instrument made up of nine thongs of cotton cord 30 inches long and less than one quarter of an inch in diameter.

The thongs are attached to a handle 18 to 20 inches long which the enforcer grips during the exercise. It is the nine cotton thongs that lashes across the back, between the shoulders and the lower area of the spine, resulting in a stinging sensation.

Three strands of switches from a tamarind tree are interlaced to form the Tamarind Switch. Whipping with the use of the Switch, is administered to the naked buttocks.

It is reported that physical damage is usually skin deep depending on the severity of the beating. In cases where there is a loss of bowel and bladder control, it is usually due to nervousness and stress, rather than as a consequence of any long term damage to these internal organ.

The idea is that when other would-be offenders see this kind of display they will think twice before committing similar crimes.

"Horrendously antiquated is the thinking that by degrading and brutalizing a person who has committed an offense, other would-be perpetrators will be deterred, " says Sobers.

Punishment, he says, has to focus on rehabilitation rather than degradation.

Flo O'Connor, a human rights advocate agrees. "It is simply going to release in him (the offender) deep and abiding tides of revenge when he should have left the confines of prison," she says.

Another difficulty Sobers says he has with Whipping as a form of punishment is that it is usually prescribed at the discretion of the judge.

"It works some measure of injustice in that some crimes which we might think are deserving of it, we find that it is not imposed.

Others which appear to have gone without it, we think deserved it."

Other observers also argue that the already barbaric environment in Jamaican prisons is graduating hardened criminals and that Whipping will not help the situation.

This latest sentence and the reaction to it reflect the debate that periodically has gripped the region as it tries to find ways to halt crime and still appear on the same wavelength as other western countries which have given up on harsh punishment for criminals.

In 1976 a government-appointed committee recommended that flogging as a form of punishment be removed from the statute books. Although the government accepted the recommendation it has made no move to follow through on it.

On the other hand, the majority of Caribbean people remember days when it was safe for a woman to walk unmolested almost anywhere in any country at any time of night.

They long for a return to those days and the present crime spiral across the region has scared many. Last year some 1,084 persons were murdered in Jamaica and since the start of the year more than 300 persons have already been murdered.

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