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The invisible scars made by strikes of the cane

Johan von Mirbach
March 5, 2015

Two young Germans, convicted of vandalism after being caught spraying paint on trains in Singapore, are to be caned and imprisoned. How badly does such punishment hurt? Moreover, what is the nature of the pain?


Singapore is known for its strict laws. Even minor offenses like eating or drinking on public transport carry penalties that are almost unthinkable for the Western mind - well over 3,000 euros ($3,300).

Other crimes are punished far more severely in the authoritarian state. Vandalism can land you in prison for three years, accompanied by up to eight strikes of the cane on your naked behind.

As draconian as this process appears (Draco was a Greek law scribe infamous for his disproportionately harsh punishments), it is also rigidly regulated, dating back to British colonial rule. While Great Britain abolished the penalty of caning in 1948, however, many former colonies didn't.

Multifarious pain

In Singapore, the cane has to be 120 centimeters long, 13 millimeters thick and extremely elastic. The person caning has been trained to induce as much pain as possible; a velocity of 160 kilometers per hour can be reached. Three strikes is generally all it takes to pierce the skin (which is moistened to avoid slivering), and scarring almost always ensues.

Victims of caning are also forced to endure psychological distress, and this is often overlooked.

"Often, they aren't told when they will receive their punishment," said Jan Kizilhan, professor of psychology in Villingen-Schwenningen. "This causes insomnia, panic attacks and cold sweats, and can develop into feelings of shame that accompany deep humiliation."

Most often, the punishment is carried out during the first third of the prison term, which means the convicted Germans will most likely receive their strikes within the next months. "The strikes themselves are often the easiest part," Kizilhan surmised, explaining that the emotional stress building up to the punishment reaches a climax and diminishes once carried out.

Yet, once the strikes have been administered, the most difficult phase often comes a few days later, said Kizilhan: "The humiliating memories are burned into the mind, and this leads to a feeling of powerlessness. These people are put on display in public," which can ultimately result in a loss of faith in other people.

Infografik Stockschläge weltweit Englisch

Widespread practice

More than 2500 people were caned in Singapore in 2012; almost half were illegal immigrants. But it's not only Singapore that condones corporal punishment. In neighboring Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei, both caning and whipping are utilized.

In the Arab world, even more drastic punishments are carried out. A recent case in Saudi Arabia that has been covered around the world concerns the blogger Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to 1000 lashes and 10 years in prison for subversion.

In Yemen, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, whippings and beatings are common practice, just like in Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. In Africa, similar forms of official punishment have been documented in Somalia, Sudan, Nigeria and Tanzania.

Despite an internationally recognized charter, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights that explicitly prohibits "cruel, abnormal and degrading forms of punishment," these countries have found a legal loophole. Punishment can only be considered torture when the pain derives from an act that contravenes the law in the jurisdiction where it is carried out.

In other words, torture is only torture when it's against local law, not universal law.