BANGKOK (TrustLaw) - Kong Touch was on her way to work at a rubber plantation in Cambodia’s Kampong Cham province at 4 a.m. when she heard footsteps behind her. As she turned, a fellow villager with whom she had had a dispute over rubber trees threw acid at her, burning her face, arms, head, chest and stomach.
The attack, in September 2011, left the 50-year-old mother of three with no right eye, 50 percent vision in the left and many disfiguring scars. With no income, she has had to rely on the Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity (CASC) for the seven operations she has undergone. She faces a precarious future.
High expectations accompanied the Acid Attack Law which came into force last December, criminalising such assaults, setting sentences of up to 30 years’ jail for convicted attackers and regulating the sale and distribution of acid.
Concerns over the law persist - it lacks details on medical and legal support for victims, and the sub-decree on regulating acid sales is still being drafted - and no one has yet been tried under the new legislation. But acid attack survivors and their advocates hope it will deter attackers and make it easier to prosecute the guilty.
Previously, most acid attackers escaped prosecution, but Touch’s case was an exception. Her attacker is now behind bars, sentenced to 10 years in prison and ordered to pay her $5,000 in compensation, money she has yet to receive.
“Acid is cheap and easy,” said Ramana Sorn, project coordinator for the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), which has published reports on acid attacks, more commonly associated with South Asia. “You need legitimate reasons to buy and use a gun. You just go and buy acid and no one asks you (why).”
EASY TO OBTAIN ACID
In a country where $1 can buy you a litre of acid, and where corruption and impunity are rife, many perpetrators go unpunished while victims face disfigurement, disability and discrimination.
Chhean, a cook from the northern town of Siem Reap, was attacked in 2008 by her brother-in-law after she threatened to report him to the police for selling his daughter. Eang Sopheach, a garment factory worker in the capital Phnom Penh, lost her looks and her right eye when two men on a motorbike poured acid on her.
The perpetrators of both attacks are still free – and even when attackers are arrested, many escape punishment, “especially when the victim is from a very poor background and lacks the power or money to pursue the case,” said Sorn.
Before the law was passed, acid attacks were not specifically covered by the legal code and were prosecuted as assault or intentional violence. Some victims accepted out-of-court settlements, sometimes facilitated by the police in return for a share, Sorn told TrustLaw.
The CCHR, which says the lack of data on acid attacks is aggravated by “a culture of silence,” recently published a map of recorded cases from 2009 to 2012.
The CASC, one of the few places providing support to victims, said it recorded 308 acid attacks involving 378 victims in 21 out of 24 Cambodian provinces between 1979 and 2012. Rights groups say the real number could be double that, and CASC project manager Ziad Samman told TrustLaw “Countless incidents go unrecorded and countless victims do not receive suitable treatment or care. (The number on record) is the tip of the iceberg.”
LOOPHOLES IN LAW
Samman said the Acid Attack Law was a formal signal that using acid is unacceptable in Khmer society. He also hopes it will change the common perception that victims somehow brought such attacks on themselves by doing something they shouldn’t.
Some 48 percent of acid attack victims are men, said Samman, who blames the media focus on notorious cases for the misconception that only women suffer such attacks and that most involve a love triangle. Almost 14 percent of victims are children under 13, he added.
Civil society groups, while welcoming the law, want clarification and improvement of some clauses. They want more detail on the legal and medical help available, a fund to raise public awareness and rehabilitate survivors, swift passage of the sub-decree regulating access to acid, and a requirement that police investigate acid attacks within 30 days.
There have been six recorded acid attacks so far in 2012, down from 17 in the whole of 2011 and 26 in 2010, though it is not clear whether the law is responsible for the reduction.
In March, a man died and his girlfriend was severely injured in an acid attack while they slept. Their case is seen as a major test for the new law, which prescribes life imprisonment for intentional, planned killing. “This is the most serious of all offences,” said Samman. “If they can’t implement (the punishment), it’ll be a sign of things to come. We’re hoping they’ll set a precedent and say this form of violence… will not be tolerated.”