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A step ahead for acid victims

Activists welcome verdict in Takeo case, but say crimes often go unpunished

Takeo Province
THE visits had been going on for months before Oun Thy, 21, decided to take action. Two or three times a week, her brother-in-law, Kaing Punnara, would drop in on Vong Sina, a 22-year-old waitress who worked at a karaoke bar in Takeo province’s Kirivong district. Though Vong Sina says the encounters were not romantic, Oun Thy would later tell police that they had enraged her family.

And so, on the night of December 17, Oun Thy – who was riding on the back of a motorbike driven by an unidentified masked man – pulled up in front of Vong Sina and three other women and poured a litre of acid over them.

Vong Sina sustained severe burns on the left side of her face, but it was her cousin, Vong Sreyly, who suffered the worst – she is still unable to leave the hospital ward where she is being treated for injuries to her face. The two other women suffered relatively mild burns, but both will be scarred for life.

On Thursday, Vong Sina sat in the Takeo provincial court as a judge announced that Oun Thy had been found guilty of “causing bodily harm” and sentenced her to four years in prison. Vong Sina was awarded 8 million riels (US$1,916) in compensation, and Soeun Srey Vann, who was also in the group of four, was awarded 4 million riels.

Speaking outside the courthouse afterwards, Vong Sina said she was glad Oun Thy had been prosecuted. “I work for money, and I never wished to love her brother-in-law. I served him because he came to my place and gave me a tip,” she said. “I think maybe she did it because she was jealous that I am prettier and had a job to do.”

She added, though, that she had been hoping for 10 million riels in compensation and a jail sentence of at least six years.

The December 17 attack was one in a spate of at least 11 in late 2009 and early 2010 that brought heightened attention to the issue of acid crimes, and prompted the government to form a committee tasked with drafting legislation to combat them. A key component of the draft law – which is still being finalised – is punishment, with the committee proposing life sentences for serious attacks.

All too often, those who advocate on behalf of acid victims say, perpetrators are never made to stand trial. The other two women attacked on December 17, for instance, settled for out-of-court payments of 2 million riels and 500,000 riels, said Horng Lairapo, medical and legal manager for the Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity.

Though he praised the fact that Oun Thy will be made to spend time behind bars, he said the sentence could have been stiffer.

“It’s in the middle,” he said. “It’s better than in the past, when perpetrators just paid a little bit of money to the victims and were not imprisoned. At least she went to jail and had to pay some compensation.

“But this crime should have a longer sentence – around 10 or 15 years. And the compensation is not enough. Medical costs are very expensive.
The victims lost their jobs, and they will have scars their whole lives.”

Charles Patterson, a legal intern at the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights who also attended Thursday’s sentencing, said he, too, had a mixed take on the outcome.

“On the one hand, it is fantastic to see that the court process works. We are pleased to have witnessed the successful and speedy deliverance of justice. Hopefully this can act as a precedent to future cases of acid violence,” he said.

“However, we had anticipated a harsher sentence. Four years – equalling one year for each individual injured – seems insufficient.”

Police declined to allow journalists access to Oun Thy on Thursday, but she was seen smiling and chatting with her family outside the courthouse before the proceedings.

At one point, she could be overheard saying she was not afraid of jail, and that she expected to be punished.

“I did it, so I am not afraid of the police or of the court sentencing me. If I was afraid I would have run away and not allowed them to arrest me,” she said.

Her sister, Oun Soeun, said that she believed the court’s ruling had been just.

“I agree with the court’s decision because it is true that my sister did it,” she said.

“I am so sorry about what my sister did to those victims, and I would not have allowed her to do it if I had known in advance.”

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