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Acid attacks could earn life in prison

Panel weighs limiting acid sales, tougher sentencing for misuse

AUTHORITIES will explore legislating stiff new punishments for perpetrators of acid crimes as part of measures aimed at quelling an apparent jump in reported incidents of the violent attacks, officials said Monday.

The proposal, issued earlier this month after a string of acid attacks, is among options being evaluated by a new government committee charged with decreasing acid attacks by controlling its use.

Ouk Kimlek, secretary of state at the Ministry of Interior and deputy director of the committee, said authorities will discuss parts of a draft 20-point law during a meeting Thursday, including life sentences for those convicted in the most severe attacks.

“In drafting the law, the important point that I noted is punishment on people who use acid against someone to make them become handicapped, damage their beauty, or kill,” Ouk Kimlek said. “They will be sentenced to jail for their whole lives. If the victim is just lightly injured, then there will be a sentence of five or more years in jail.”

Cambodia currently lacks a law that specifically deals with acid crimes. It is a situation, Ouk Kimlek said, that sees perpetrators get off with light punishments or none at all.

“Because we don’t have a law to punish those who use acid against other people, that’s why it is difficult to punish people, so we see most perpetrators or suspects have never been punished,” he said.

The committee will also explore regulating the sale of acid, which he said is so widely available that even children can buy it.

“We can see very young people also buying acid, so we need to create a law on using acid as soon as possible,” said Ouk Kimlek, who added that instituting a minimum age for buying acid may be beneficial.

But at this point, the terms of the law are merely suggestions that need to be debated, Ouk Kimlek said.

He added that the committee also plans to invite acid vendors in Phnom Penh to meet with officials – “in order to ask them where they import acid from and who do they usually sell it to”.

‘Weak law enforcement’
Acid attacks are seen as particularly violent crimes, often aimed not at killing, but scarring victims for life. Victims can suffer severe, disfiguring injuries from common acid capable of dissolving skin, tissue and even bone.

The pending discussions represent an about-face for the government, which as recently as last month rejected calls to regulate the sale of acid as too difficult to implement.

Acid is widely used in the Kingdom to maintain motor vehicles, clear clogged drains and clean jewellery.

After a string of reported attacks in January, however, the Interior Ministry shifted its position, announcing the formation of the committee.

Rights groups and advocates who work with acid attack victims have lauded the government’s new direction, but also warned that it will take more than new legislation to reduce acid violence.

“There is weak law enforcement, and the powerful can get away with almost anything,” said Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights.

Violent acid attacks often go unpunished, most notably in the recent case of Chea Ratha, a former Military Police official who has escaped imprisonment despite having been convicted last year for her role in attacking her former partner’s aunt.

“People will look at it and say, ‘I can get away with it,’” Ou Virak said. “I think cases like Chea Ratha’s could have been used to set a precedent, but unfortunately it wasn’t. She’s still on the run.”

Until new legislation is in place, perpetrators can and should be punished under standard criminal laws, said Am Sam Ath, technical superviser for the rights group Licadho.

“We have the law, but the practice of using the law is not strict, so it can be useless to have it,” Am Sam Ath said. “But I believe that if we all join together to strongly practice this law, then the use of acid to kill will be reduced.”

Despite the government’s intentions, new legislation could still be far away, Am Sam Ath warned.

“It could take from one to two years to improve the law, so I think the government should reinforce punishments on acid users now, while we are waiting for the changes,” he said.

The Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity recorded at least 194 separate acid attacks between 1985 and 2009, a figure that is believed to be short of the actual total.

IN DATES: developments in acid attack policy

November 27, 2009
Week ending December 17, 2009
January 19, 2010
January 31, 2010
February 2010
Former Military Police Brigadier General Chea Ratha is convicted in absentia for her role in an acid attack. Rights groups praise the result, but note Chea Ratha remains on the run from the law.
A spate of three attacks in a week leaves seven women injured. The Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity would record at least five attacks in December alone – roughly half of the entire year’s total until then.
Advocates renew calls for an acid law after a man is attacked. But officials decline: “We cannot ask buyers what they are buying the acid for,” Interior Ministry Spokesman Khieu Sopheak says.
Another spate of violence brings the total number of reported attacks to six in January alone. Victims include a man whose wife is accused of attacking him and a former karaoke performer.
Officials reverse position and announce a committee has been formed to examine the issue. A new “acid law” will punish perpetrators and “manage both sellers and buyers”, says Khieu Sopheak.

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