Jamaican Senators to push for decriminalisation of obeah

(L-R) BROWN… why are we criminalising people for their religious beliefs. TAVARES-FINSON… I believe that the issue of its
criminality is a leftover from slavery and colonialism

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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