With a National Assembly debate on the draft acid law scheduled for Thursday, advocates of the legislation say that it still fails to adequately punish acid attackers who inflict lifelong misery and disfigurement on their victims.
A year and eight months in the making, there are also concerns that the draft of the future law lacks detail on what kinds of ongoing medical and legal help will be given to victims of acid attacks.
Under the latest draft law, acid attacks that cause permanent disability are punishable by between five and 25 years in jail. However, an earlier draft of the law stipulated that perpetrators would face sentences of between 20 years and life imprisonment.
According to the most recent draft, the intentional act of killing someone with acid is punishable by between 15 and 30 years, unless the crime was planned in advance or involved cruel acts and torture, in which case a life sentence can be handed out. Under a previous draft, all acid murderers would be sentenced to life in jail.
The latest law also includes an apparently contradictory article that states that cases of intentional violence involving acid will result in jail sentences of between two and five years. Acts deemed as being tortuous or cruel have sentences of between 10 and 20 years.
While Cambodia has witnessed horrific acid crime for years, and increasingly in provincial areas, the government only began to take acid crimes seriously in 2010—amid a number of high-profile attacks—and began drafting a law specifically related to the crime.
Ziad Samman, project manager at the Phnom Penh-based Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity (CASC), said that as little as two years in jail was not enough to punish attackers, who often leave their victims scarred for life.
“Survivors deal with what happens for the rest of their lives, while the perpetrators will have served their sentences,” Mr Samman said.
In a statement last month, Tat Marina—who was attacked with acid in 1999, allegedly by the wife of Secretary of State at the Council of Ministers Svay Sitha—along with SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua and filmmaker Skye Fitzgerald, who produced a film about Ms Marina’s attack, called the new sentencing pertaining to permanent disability “ridiculously low.”
“In general, perpetrators should pay a greater price for their crimes,” the group said in the joint statement.
Interior Ministry Undersecretary of State Ouk Kim Lek rejected the criticism of the law yesterday.
“The penalties are not that light. [Critics] do not really know about it; that’s why they say it is light,” Mr Kim Lek said. “The penalties for acid crime are very complicated, since the victims are left in a chronic condition. They dare not even look in the mirror or face society.”
Mr Kim Lek did not write off further changes being made to the law during this week’s National Assembly debate. The draft law includes provisions to regulate the use, sale and transportation of acid as well as provisions to provide support for victims.
While the draft law covers many of the key areas, Mr Samman said that some points concerning care for victims remain unclear. For example, the draft does not specify if state legal support is free, if long-term medical treatment is covered and what kinds of rehabilitation are on offer.
“If [the draft] goes ahead in its current state, we might be concerned over certain factors and points not adequately considered,” he said.
So far this year, 16 people, including one perpetrator, have been injured in 10 acid attacks nationwide, according to CASC.
Another area where the law has been weakened compared to previous drafts concerns punishments handed out to accomplices to acid attacks. Whereas accomplices were handed out the same sentences as attackers in a previous version, they have now been completely omitted.
“To make it more clear, they must put [the reference to accomplices] in [the law],” said Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the legal aid Cambodian Defenders Project. He also said the law does not clearly define what torture and cruel acts actually means.
SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua, who attempted to introduce draft legislation to punish acid attackers as early as 2002, said the wide range of different penalties in the law meant they could easily be left open to interpretation.
“There is too much room for the judge to interpret what could lead to lower sentences,” she said. “We are most concerned about implementation of the law.”
Ms Sochua feared that Cambodia’s legacy of few prosecutions and arrests for acid attacks, especially involving powerful people—such as the case of Ms Marina in which no one has ever been brought to justice—would continue.
“Even in [Ms Marina’s] case, the perpetrator is free,” she said.
“If the government is very serious about the law, they would at least show some willingness in prosecuting and arresting these people who are still free.”