By Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza
Last week, the government of Pakistan announced it would push the National Assembly to pass the long-awaited Acid Control and Burn Crime Prevention Bill this month. The bill, first introduced in January 2010, emerged from collaboration among the Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF), National Commission on Status of Women, United Nations Development Fund for Women, and the Pakistan Ministry of Women Development.
While passage is nearly certain, it remains to be seen whether the government will make a sincere attempt to implement this legislation – and, moreover, how effective its effort at enforcement may be.
Over the past few years, acid terrorism has begun to provoke international concern as acid-related crimes have increased in some countries and appeared in others. In several recent high-profile cases, individuals have used acid in mass attacks. Destroying a victim’s life may cost anything from the 100,000 rupees some attackers have reported being promised in Pakistan — about $1,170 USD — to the 60 Euro cents — just $1 USD — it takes to buy a kilo of acid in Bangladesh.
While the motivations behind such acts vary, perpetrators choose acid for simple reasons: it is cheap and widely available, assault with acid is penalized relatively lightly or goes unpunished, and victims who do not die are marked, often disabled for life. When it does not kill, acid leaves victims in agony –disfigured, deformed, and sometimes blinded. Their limbs may be fused in the position they held when burned. For those with access to medical care surgery may lessen complications and reduce disfigurement, but survivors struggle to overcome both physical and mental injury and social stigma for the rest of their lives.
In Southeast Asia, girls may be attacked with acid for going to school, talking to men, turning down marriage proposals, or having inadequate dowries, as may men and women whose spouses suspect them of infidelity. One Pakistani woman, Zainab Bibi, was just 12 when she turned down the suitor who would destroy her face with acid as punishment five years later. Across the world in Canada, the United States, and Britain, the incidence of acid attacks has also risen. In 2008, an abusive boyfriend paid an assailant to throw acid on Katie Piper, burning her so badly that surgeons had to create a new face.
In Pakistan, the number of acid-related crimes is rising. Last year, ASF reported 48 acid attacks, as compared with just 30 such incidents in 2007. ASF figures suggest family members perpetrate nearly half of acid attacks (48 percent), rejected suitors are responsible for a quarter (25 percent), and “collateral damage” accounts for 12 percent. Yet Pakistan does not regulate the sale of acid adequately, albeit in part because it is a common household good. Existing legislation does not address acid-related crime specifically, allowing perpetrators to escape with light sentences–or evade punishment altogether. Enforcement varies by region, discrepancies indicating the need for federal legislation setting minimum sentences and oversight of local implementation.
The breakdowns that reduce the likelihood of an acid attack being punished begin at the local level. Many assaults go unreported, but when victims do report acid attacks, the police may demand a bribe to investigate, refuse to investigate, or accept a bribe from the attacker to drop the case. In court, the prosecution and judiciary are susceptible to the same extralegal influences and pressure to adhere to social norms. Illegal out-of-court settlements routinely deprive victims of formal justice and keep acid attacks out of the judicial system entirely.
The text of the preamble to Pakistan’s Acid Control and Burn Crime Prevention Bill spells out an ambitious, progressive agenda:
“Whereas it is necessary to make provisions to specifically criminalise acid related violence by providing tougher and stricter penalties, speedy trial of such heinous offences and for matters connected therewith and incidental thereto; and
Whereas to further control the import, production, transportation, hoarding, sale and use of acid to prevent the misuse of acid as a corrosive substance and for the purpose of treatment and rehabilitation of acid victims and to provide legal support to them and for matters connected therewith and incidental thereto.”
The legislation would create a National Acid Control Council and “comprehensively defin[e] hurt and disfigurement” as well as categorizing acids as dangerous substances, restricting their sale, more heavily penalizing “unlawful sales,” and increasing the maximum sentence for disfigurement significantly — in addition to setting a minimum sentence of seven years. Medical professionals would be legally bound to report acid-related injuries to police. Further, the bill would define the victims of acid attacks as disabled, entitling them to government benefits, and provide for treatment, rehabilitation, and legal aid.
India and Cambodia have been debating passing similar legislation to address acid attacks, and Bangladesh has already done so. Progress in India has stalled after the state suddenly reversed its position on acid-related offenses this year, withdrawing support for an addition to the Indian Penal Code, Section 326A, to restrict the sale of acid and address acid-related offenses. Although the Centre had previously advocated acid-throwing legislation, in April representatives stated that current Indian Penal Code could encompass acid-related offenses.
If passed, Cambodia’s law would regulate the sale of acids, set minimum sentences and increase the maximum sentence for acid-related offenses, and improve care for survivors. Today, acid attacks are classified as civil assaults, which require the victim to press charges. Like Pakistan, Cambodia is responding to a rise in acid attacks. As of August 23, the Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity had already recorded 17 acid attacks in 2010.
Tentative progress in Bangladesh suggests cause for optimism. In 2002, Bangladesh enacted specific, strict legislation restricting the accessibility of acid. Improvement has come slowly — 146 individuals were injured by acid attacks in Bangladesh last year, and the ratio of convictions to victims remains low — and acid is still available in open markets, but acid-related attacks may have begun to decrease.
Legislative reform will not necessarily translate to substantive change in Pakistan, but it marks progress. The National Assembly of Pakistan follows the Supreme Court of Pakistan in demonstrating specific, formal opposition to acid terrorism, laying the foundation for the cultural and social changes that must accompany legal reform. Initially, acid attacks were associated almost exclusively with honor killings and the punishment of women suspected of immoral conduct or acts of defiance, such as not wearing the hijab. Opponents to the Acid Control and Burn Crime Prevention Bill see the legislation as a restriction of their right to discipline family and take action against perpetrators of immoral conduct. Meanwhile, critical supporters claim that the bill addresses the ideal with little regard for the real, disregarding the deficiencies of government infrastructure and social context. A Pakistani attorney involved in its drafting, Faisal Fareed, points to the disjunction between the legislation’s mandate for free medical care and rehabilitation and the lack of medical facilities capable of providing such care.
Despite its flaws and the obstacles ahead, the Acid Control and Burn Crime Prevention Bill represents an opportunity to make remarkable progress in combating acid terrorism in Pakistan. Its successful passage may also signal receptivity to the involvement of civil society and international organizations in policy reform. In passing this bill, the Pakistani government puts progress ahead of politics.
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About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.