In a landmark case that could renew hope for acid attack survivors searching for justice, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court convicted a man yesterday under the recently adopted but rarely used Acid Law.
Bin Soeun, a 49-year-old known as Champa, was sentenced to five years in prison and ordered to pay over 10 million riel ($2,500) in compensation for the treatment of Nhem Sreyda, 32, whose face he splashed with acid on August 5 after learning she was about to marry another man.
“If the defendant is not satisfied with the decision, he can appeal legally,” said Suos Sam Ath, presiding judge of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court.
Sreyda was playing cards at her friend’s house in Phnom Penh’s Chamkarmon district when Soeun, who had been living with her, called on the phone.
“When will you invite me to join your wedding party?” he reportedly said. She replied that she would invite when she got married.
She was attacked on the road home with acid Soeun said he bought to fill a battery. He was arrested after the victim persuaded him to come home and help her pay for treatment.
Passed in November of 2011, the Acid Law, which imposed harsher sentences, was supposed to deter attacks – and they have gone down. There were eight in 2012, compared with 17 in 2011 and 26 in 2010.
But the law, critics had said, lacked muscle as it was never tested in court. It also lacked, and still lacks, a crucial sub-decree regulating transport and limiting access to acid.
In a coincidence yesterday, the transport issue undercut the historic first conviction, after Svay Rieng provincial military police confiscated 25 barrels of “strong acid” from the back of a car in Kandieng Reay commune.
The driver and his assistant have not been arrested, police said.
“I think it’s really positive they are keeping an eye on things,” said Ziad Samman of the Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity, which has advocated for the passage of the sub-decree.
Samman said the first conviction under the Acid Law is a step in the right direction. But he held back from celebrating, citing concerns of compensation – which might not cover the $5,000 Sreyda said she had already spent on treatment – and the sentence itself, which may have been incorrect, given the seriousness of her injuries.
“I know that she would have liked more compensation... but I can say for certain that this is a really positive result. It’s a good precedent to start out with under the acid law, so hopefully it’s a good disincentive for perpetrators,” he said.
“However, we’re going to see what will happen in the future with some of these high-profile cases leading to death, to see how seriously the judiciary and government are taking it.”
Two women died from acid attacks in December alone. Should the courts ever convict the people responsible under the Acid Law, they could face up to 30 years in prison.
Terms of life can be handed down to those who plan the attacks in advance, stage an ambush, or commit torture and cruel acts before or during the killing.
In yesterday’s case, Soeun was sentenced under Article 20 of the law for intentional violence using concentrated acid. He received the maximum sentence of five years.
Had the court deemed his victim had suffered “permanent disability”, which, with burns to half her face, she could have claimed, he may have gone to prison for double the time.
“Was that charge the right charge?” Samman asked. “Did it incorporate the level of injury? If they found him guilty of intentional violence causing injuries [then] that sentence changes dramatically.”
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