By David ShaftelAs another acid attack victim recovers from burns inflicted last week, legal watchdogs are pressing for more specific legislation that would punish the perpetrators. Meanwhile, an NGO is spearheading an effort to perform reconstructive surgery on acid attack victims.
Phan Pheap, a 32-year-old resident of Boeng Tumpun commune in Phnom Penh, was attacked with hydrochloric acid in her home last Sunday by an unknown assailant. Phan Pheap is the second wife of Bou Vannak, 37, who divorced his first wife and left his two children behind in Prey Veng province. Bou Vannak said that he divorced his first wife three months ago, shortly before the couple’s move to Phnom Penh. Both Phan Pheap and Bou Vannak say they don’t know who the attacker might have been.
So Khoeurn, police chief in Boeng Tumpun commune, has said that he suspects Bou Vannak’s first wife. Phan Pheap, however, does not wish to pursue the matter. “I do not want to take any revenge,” she said. “It is a bad jinx for me and I want to forget it.”
There has been scant justice for acid attack victims in the past. Now there are increasing calls to reform Cambodia’s laws in order to set a clear mandate for punishment of acid attacks. Currently attackers are sentenced under Untac law, which has stipulations for assault and battery resulting in disability.
But according to Stuart Coghill, legal consultant to the Cambodian Defender’s Project, “Battery with injury is a standard provision. The range of sentences for the offense is based on the length of disability that is caused by the battery.” He says it is up to the judge to determine the definition of disability.
Many observers were troubled last December by the case Minh Rinath, the wife of the RCAF officer Lok Sok Heng, who doused former Remy Martin girl Som Rasmey with acid. Minh Rinath was convicted of assault, but had her two-year jail sentence suspended.
“The judge agreed that there was enough evidence to convict, but it was a very light sentence and it didn’t allow for any compensation to the victim.” said Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodia Defenders project.
There are several ways to effect a change in the legislation. One would be to write a provision into Cambodia’s new penal code which is currently being drafted.
A speedier solution would be to include specific language pertaining to acid attacks into the draft proposal for the new domestic violence law prepared by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and various NGOs. That law is expected to reach the National Assembly in December and be passed in January, according to Mu Sochua, minister of Women’s Affairs.
“The [current] provision is for serious damage or disability, but it does not consider acid attacks a serious injury or disability,” Sok Sam Oeun said. By adding this provision to the domestic violence law, “we can use this new law as a test until the new penal code comes out,” he added.
Another option would be to amend the existing Battery with Injury law. A similar strategy was used last Friday when lawmakers voted to rework the definition of rape and strengthen the criminal penalty.
Mu Sochua doesn’t see the problem as insufficient legislation, but rather as a lack implementation of existing laws. “There needs to be enforcement of the sentencing mechanism,” she said.
Som Rasmey sent a complaint to the appeals court in September and is waiting for a trial date, according to Touch Voleak, her lawyer. Mu Sochua hopes Som Rasmey’s high-profile case will encourage the courts to make fair decisions. “We need to educate the public to take action and to speak out about this type of case,” she said.
Meanwhile, Medecins Du Monde is trying to help repair the lives of acid attack victims. According to Dr Pascal Cretin of the French NGO, every year the organization undertakes 10 to 12 missions to various provinces to provide reconstructive–and sometimes plastic–surgery free of charge.
On these missions, a surgeon, nurse and anesthesiologist treat women for their injuries. Many of the victims require several procedures–often involving a bone or skin graft–allowing them to regain the use of an ear, nose or mouth. “We try to give a functional answer for women who are not able to eat or hear,” Cretin said.
Som Rasmey has been given an initial diagnosis and is expected to start treatment as soon as her wounds have had time to heal.