Crime & Justice, Europe, Global, Headlines, Human Rights

Corporal Punishment Leaves Too Many Scars

Pavol Stracansky

PRAGUE, Nov 20 2011 (IPS) - Thousands of people are being left physically and psychologically scarred as countries around the world continue to breach international law in handing out brutal but “ineffective” corporal punishment for drug offences, it has been claimed.

More than 40 states sentence people to caning, whipping and flogging in what their governments argue are punishments designed to deter drug use, a new report by Harm Reduction International (HRI) states.

But experts say that the punishments not only run contrary to international laws, but do nothing to help resolve problems with drug use, and have severe long-term psychological effects on the people who suffer them.

And while the use of the death penalty for drug offences often makes world headlines, campaigners claim the problem of judicially-sanctioned corporal punishment is more widespread and just as serious.

Eka Iakobishvili, author of the report ‘Inflicting Harm: Corporal Punishment for Drug and Alcohol Offences in Selected Countries’ told IPS: “There is no data to show that these punishments have any effect on stopping people using drugs, but what is accepted is that drug dependency is just that – a dependency – and that imposing punishments on people will not stop them from using drugs.

“This is a ‘silent’ issue that is just as serious as the use of the death penalty for drug offences and one which, rather than helping drug dependents, can actually make their drug use worse.”

According to HRI, an NGO which works to promote harm reduction worldwide, more than 40 countries use judicially-sanctioned corporal punishment, either enforced through penal codes or, in some cases, through Sharia law, for a number of offences.

There is no comprehensive data on the worldwide imposition of judicial corporate sentences. But estimates from prisoners and non-governmental intelligence sources suggests that thousands, possibly tens of thousands, of people, including women and children, are lashed, whipped, stoned or caned every year.

Although the punishments are not designed to be lethal, they inflict severe pain and some offenders have died as a result of their injuries.

Victims have spoken of the horrific physical ordeal that they have gone through.

In a report by Amnesty International last year on judicial corporal punishment in Malaysia, where caning is imposed for drugs possession offences, one man who had been caned said of his experience: “It was more than being in a motor accident. It was like cutting your arm open and putting chilli in it.” Another described it as “like being burned and cut with a knife”.

The report also contained first-hand accounts of people passing out from pain and begging the guards beating them for mercy.

Some said that they had suffered physically for months and even years afterwards following their punishment, while many have permanent scars on their bodies.

They added they had also been left with long-term psychological problems because of the punishment.

Some reported feeling mentally unstable and in permanent states of fear or anxiety while others described recurring nightmares about their punishments.

Psychologists have said that corporal punishment victims can show signs of post-traumatic stress disorders.

But apart from the physical and psychological harm they inflict, HRI says that the punishments can make drug users’ habits worse.

Iakobishvili told IPS: “The aim of the punishment is to humiliate, shame and degrade a person. The effects of doing this can last for a very long time. In some cases, these punishments are carried out in public and this leads to people having to bear social shame as well.

“What happens with some drug offenders is that these punishments force a feeling of shame on the victims which can lead to them hating themselves even more than they already do and because of this they start to take even harder drugs than before, making their whole problem worse.”

Governments which sanction the punishments argue that they act as a punishment to offenders and deterrent to re-offending.

But anecdotal evidence suggests this claim is spurious at best. In one instance in Malaysia, where corporal punishment sentences can be given for illegal immigration, officials found that more than 4,000 migrants had returned to the state to work illegally after they were caned and deported.

In the case of drug offenders, even prison officials in the country have privately admitted that it has little deterrent effect and that drug dependency treatment programmes would be more effective.

Rick Lines, HRI executive director, told IPS: “Effective drug policies are those that respect human rights, international standards and scientific evidence of effectiveness. Corporal punishment for drug offences fails all three of these tests. It amounts to little more that a government trying to brutalise its way out of a drug problem.”

Some authorities cite religious texts as a justification for their use of corporal punishment. But these interpretations have been questioned by some religious leaders and theologians.

Campaigners against judicial corporate punishment also point out that it breaches international human rights laws. The UN special rapporteur on torture has said it breaks laws on the prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and that governments cannot use national laws to justify its imposition.

Iakobishvili said: “Many of the countries we focused on in our report have Sharia law and refer to that in explaining their use of corporal punishment. There needs to be more academic discussion over the use of judicial corporate punishment as part of Sharia law. This could help.”

Repeated calls for the practices to be stopped have so far largely fallen on deaf ears. But HRI says that there are signs of some progress on the issue.

Iakobishvili told IPS: “During the research for our report we talked to authorities in Malaysia and they said that they were considering abolishing judicial corporate punishment soon.”

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