Despite rising awareness within the media and the government to the violence and trauma resulting from acid attacks, police, government and NGO officials appear in the dark over incidents of the gruesome crime this year.
The most recent figures suggest that there have been 16 acid attacks across the country resulting in 28 injuries since the beginning of the year.
Police and government officials are unclear how many arrests have been made in response to those attacks and the main NGO dealing with the victims of the crime does not know the full extent of attacks that have occurred.
Police officials contacted this week said that no suspects have been arrested following ten attacks reported by the Cambodia Daily this year.
Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak, Interior Ministry spokesperson, said that police consider acid attacks as one of the most serious crimes and do arrest perpetrators. “There is no impunity in my country…. All the [accusations from] people who say that we do not care about acid attacks are not true,” Mr Sopheak said.
Although investigations meet successes, sometimes suspects run away quickly or there is not enough evidence to make arrests, Mr Sopheak said. Victims may be scared or not want to give evidence to the police while acid is easily disguised in drinks containers before use as a weapon.
Most recently unidentified motorcycle riders escaped after dousing one man and splashing another with acid in Russei Keo district on Saturday morning. Another attacker is still at large after allegedly throwing acid on a woman and seven bystanders in broad daylight on a crowded street in Dangkao district last week.
This year the capital saw three more attacks on motorbike riders-three siblings, a 30-year-old woman and a pair in their mid-twenties-and another on a man walking by the side of the road. In Phnom Penh during January a woman was doused at her house and a jealous girlfriend allegedly poured acid on her sleeping husband. The same month in Kompong Cham province a woman reportedly threw acid on her husband followed in February by a man allegedly dousing his wife.
No arrests have been made in these cases, district and commune police contacted this week said.
Municipal police chief Touch Naruth said he could not recall the number of acid attack cases in 2010. Kompong Cham provincial police chief Nuon Samin said only one acid attack was followed by an arrest this year declining to give further detail.
Previously the Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity said that 21 acid attacks had resulted in 30 injuries this year. However, yesterday project coordinator Ziad Samman only confirmed 16 attacks and 28 injuries saying that the higher figure included accidents involving acid, people injured in December and reported cases that turned out to be burns caused by other substances. “It is difficult to get reliable information, which is the nature of the beast,” Mr Samman said.
Ouk Kimlek, undersecretary of state at the Interior Ministry and deputy chairman of a committee formed in January to draft a new acid law hailed by advocates as a step forward, said that he did not know how many arrests were made this year. “I don’t know about it. I’m just responsible for creating the law,” Mr Kimlek said, referring questions to the police.
National police spokesperson Kirth Chantharith said that he did not have figures on acid attacks. When asked why police fail to arrest acid attackers, Mr Chantharith said that perpetrators plan their escape route effectively. “If they commit the crime near the police we would be able to arrest them immediately…. Police have never ignored this crime.”
SRP Lawmaker Mu Sochua said that there is no strong message from the top leadership and society that acid attacks are unacceptable. Cambodia’s culture of impunity and violence does not deter people from using acid as a weapon, she said. “If I want to use acid, what is there to stop me? No-one is going to catch me and to get out of jail I can pay.”
A May report by the Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity and local partners said factors leading to attacks include access to acid and few perpetrators being brought to justice for acid crime, which is often seen as a private matter. “Unfortunately, as attitudes to acid violence do not reflect its status as a criminal offense, it has effectively been relegated to the private sphere,” it said.
Nevertheless advocates say that the police and government are focusing more on the issue signaled by the draft acid law including life sentences for the worst offenders and regulation on the sale of acid. Currently acid violence is prosecuted as ordinary assault or attempted murder.
Takeo Provincial Court this year sentenced a 21-year-old woman to four years for an attack in December on four karaoke parlor staffers using acid. In December, two cousins and a third suspect were also arrested for allegedly dousing a televised beauty contest participant.
Last year convictions were also made in a couple of high profile cases. Fugitive former military police deputy chief of staff Chea Ratha was convicted in absentia on appeal in November for an acid attack on the aunt of her former lover, but is still at large. Kampot Provincial Court in June 2009 sentenced a man over killing a woman and her granddaughter with acid yet two others convicted in absentia have not yet been arrested.
Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said that with acid attacks and more general crime, impunity exists in Cambodia for those who have money and influence.
However, this year the government and police seem to be paying more attention to attacks and the new acid law being drafted will hopefully increase the understanding of acid violence among police officials, Mr Virak said. “Often it is seen as a private affair, but it is not…. We need to open up their eyes to this crime,” he said.