In 2002, the incidence of acid attacks in Bangladesh was rising at such an alarming rate, hitting nearly 10 attacks per week, that it pushed the country into decisive action: the introduction of the death penalty for acid crimes.
“We observed and told the government to realize that this crime is increasing and this crime should be brought to everybody’s attention,” said Rehana Sultana, a member of the Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association.
“It was happening all over the country. It is one of the most heinous offenses; more so than murders,” she said by telephone from Dhaka yesterday.
That year, 2002, the Bangladeshi government introduced the death sentence for perpetrators of acid attacks and introduced strict regulations on the sale, use, storage, import and export of acid.
The Acid Crime Control Act was also introduced, ordering, by law, that investigations into acid attacks be concluded within 60 days. Acid-related cases were also to be tried by a dedicated Acid Tribunal Court, which has a legally binding obligation to complete cases within 90 days.
Still not satisfied enough was being done, Bangladesh also created the National Acid Control Council, whose mandate is to develop policies and monitoring systems for the production, trade and deposit of acid and to develop medical, rehabilitation and legal support services for the victims of acid violence.
Bangladesh’s acid attack rate has since plummeted. According to the Acid Survivors Foundation, the number of people attacked in Bangladesh fell to 179 in 2008.
Cambodia has had at least 13 reported acid attacks so far this year, which with some 14 million people is proportionally close to the current number of acid attacks in Bangladesh, a country with 140 million people.
Cambodia, however, has yet to take serious action against acid crimes.
“There is no distinction in the penal code regarding to the crime of acid. It has not been mentioned,” said Chhun Sophea, program manager of the Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity in Phnom Penh, whose organization provides free medical care and social reintegration services for survivors of attacks with acid.
“A tougher approach would help to slow down the frequency of [acid] attacks and people considering committing the crime would be scared,” Ms Sophea said of the reason to have special laws to deal with acid.
Even if the introduction of the death penalty in Bangladesh was “too severe” and Cambodia is constitutionally prohibited from introducing such as punishment, it did send out a clear message to the public that acid attacks were not to be tolerated, Ms Sophea said.
In Cambodia, an equally clear and strong message could be delivered if the new Penal Code included a definite sentencing term for those who commit acid attacks. Without proper legal avenues for prosecution, victims sometimes try and seek their own revenge rather than seek justice through the courts, she said.
Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, agreed that more needs to be done to combat acid crime.
“Selling acid…should be controlled and sellers should manage the distribution of it,” he said.
Mr Sopheak pointed out that the recent decision by the Appeal Court to overturn the acquittal of former military police commander Chea Ratha for an acid attack in 2008 was a symbol of the importance the government attaches to acid crime.
The Appeal Court last month found that Ms Ratha and five other suspects were guilty of orchestrating an acid attack against the aunt of her former lover.
All of the suspects, however, are at large, including two of which were released early from prison before the victim, Ya Soknim, had a chance to appeal a controversial decision by the municipal court to drop all charges against Mr Ratha and the other suspects.
Police have said that Ms Ratha was also a suspect in two other acid attacks.
The government is committed to jailing Ms Ratha, Mr Sopheak maintained.
Monira Rahman, executive director of Acid Survivors Foundation in Bangladesh, said by telephone that her organization started a prevention campaign in 2001, which gathered together celebrity personalities in the country to speak out against acid attacks.
They also organized a public demonstration where more than 5,000 men denounced acid attacks on women. Women are usually the victims of acid attacks, around 60 percent of all attacks, by men in Bangladesh.
International coverage of the acid attack situation in Bangladesh also brought pressure on the government to act.
“That created pressure on the government. It became an issue for the government to do something against it,” Ms Rahman said. “We all came together to push government to enact [new] laws.”
For Cambodia, she said: “You have to have a law where these poor victims can have a shelter and have support to reintegrate.”
The advances made in Bangladesh sent out a message to other countries in the region where acid attacks are also common. Last year, India introduced legislation that provides better compensation for victims and tougher sentences of perpetrators of acid attacks.
In 1999, police said that Khun Sophal, the wife of then Council of Ministers Undersecretary of State Svay Sitha, and two of her bodyguards, doused Tat Marina, an actress, with more than one liter of highly corrosive acid, gravely destroying the then-16-year-old’s face and back. Ms Marina was lucky to survive the attack and now lives in the US where she has received more than a decade of plastic surgery. A documentary film has been made about Ms Marina’s life, which details the attack and those who carried it out. Nobody, however, has been brought to justice for attack.
This year alone The Cambodia Daily has reported on eight separate acid attacks in which more than 10 people were seriously injured. Experts say the number of victims is undoubtedly higher.
According to rights group Licadho, there is an average of at least one acid attack per month.
According to a 2003 report by Licadho, “acid throwers and other criminals may be able to avoid justice, especially if they are richer or more powerful than their victims. If perpetrators are not punished, it encourages other people to think that they can commit the same crimes with impunity.”
There is also a general misconception among those in the government and the public, according to CASC and Licadho, that acid attack victims are perhaps deserving of their wounds due to their involvement in love affairs.
“In acid attacks there is nothing else, it is 90 percent of the time a love affair,” Phnom Penh municipal police chief Touch Naruth said on Monday by telephone.
Yet out of the 268 acid attack survivors whose cases have been documented by the CASC, only 10 percent of the victims identified family disputes, including extra-marital affairs, to be the root cause of their attack. Approximately 11 percent reported that they were the victim of an attack that was directed at somebody else.
In a report released this month CASC said: “Acid violence in Cambodia is motivated by more than just jealousy and family disputes, but by the astonishing availability and accessibility of acid in the commercial market place. Whilst both men and women are targets of the violence, often children and innocent bystanders are inadvertently caught in the way.”
Deputy National Police Commissioner Ouk Kimlek said that a draft subdecree had been written to regulate the selling of goods that can jeopardize health.
Experts say the such a law would be particularly useful in Kompong Cham province where agricultural workers in the rubber industry use acid to dry resin from rubber trees quicker so they can export it abroad. Kompong Cham also an inordinate number of acid attacks.
“If we interfere a lot, it may affect the free market. But buyers who just buy for evil intentions are punishable [under the draft subdecree,]” Mr Kimlek said.
The draft, however, does not specify the selling of acid, Mr Kimlek admitted, but he added that acid is a substance that could be more strictly regulated as a result.
But until regulation is implemented, or serious measures are taken by authorities to combat the crime, acid attacks are likely to be a mainstay in Cambodia.
Last week, sisters Kim Sodine and Kim Sonita were attacked with highly corrosive acid by two men on a motorbike on Mao Tse Toung Boulevard in Phnom Penh. They crumbled to the ground as their faces started to melt away, witnesses said.
Less than ten hours after the attack, doctors at Preah Kossomak hospital burns unit who had dressed their wounds and cleaned away the acid corroding their skin, said that sisters Ms Sodine, 18, and Ms Sonita, 17, were on their way to Vietnam in search of more specialized treatment.
Police still have no suspects in the attack on the sisters, but believe it was related to a business dispute involving the teenager sisters’ mother.
If Cambodia has to make acid crimes a priority if it to seriously address the issue, said Ms Sultana, of the Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association.
“[In Bangladesh] we have been able to keep this issue alive,” said Ms Sultana. “But there is still a long way to go.”
(Additional reporting by Prak Chan Thul)