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Justice still elusive for acid victims

Tes Pha, the victim of a severe acid attack in Battambang province, sits on a bed at Children’s Surgical Centre in Phnom Penh last year
Tes Pha, the victim of a severe acid attack in Battambang province, sits on a bed at Children’s Surgical Centre in Phnom Penh last year. Acid attack numbers are down, but perpetrators are still unlikely to face punishment. Hong Menea

Justice still elusive for acid victims

Two years after Cambodia’s Acid Law took effect, and one year after a subsequent sub-decree further regulated the dangerous substance, significant hurdles remain in securing justice for victims of acid attacks, according to a paper published in the Cambodian Law and Policy Journal on Sunday.

In her paper, “Achieving Justice for the Survivors of Acid Violence in Cambodia”, Sharon Beijer outlines a host of factors hampering the effective implementation of the Kingdom’s acid laws. Among the key areas of concern are the absence of witness-protection programs, a lack of expertise on the part of judges and prosecutors, and persistent attitudes – even among court officers – that victims “deserved their fate”.

According to Beijer, the most important reason that cases against acid-attack perpetrators rarely see a conviction is survivors choosing not to file a complaint, a decision that can be motivated by the lack of protections for witnesses and victims alike.

“Perpetrators commonly threaten the survivors of their attack, both before and after they file a complaint with the police,” Beijer writes. “There are examples of survivors who have received threatening phone calls from unidentified males. If survivors fear retaliation by the perpetrator or the perpetrator’s family, they will be hesitant to file a complaint.”

What’s more, she adds, many survivors are discouraged by what they perceive as Cambodian courts’ inability to see a case through. Only 11 of 41 cases monitored by the Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity (CASC) – where Beijer formerly worked – have reached a verdict. Cases are unceremoniously, even unofficially, dropped “quite frequently”.

“For example, [victim] KS was attacked in early 2010 and met with the investigative judge in late 2010, but was not informed until July 2012 that the trial would start ‘shortly’. Nevertheless, she has not heard from the court since,” Beijer writes. “[Victim] CB was attacked in 1997, and states that he filed a complaint, but neither the police nor the prosecutor ever started an investigation and eventually he ‘just moved on’.

“Prosecutors are not legally obligated to start a prosecution for every alleged crime, and due to corruption or the perception that individuals attacked with acid ‘deserved’ it, it is not inconceivable that prosecutors decide to not prosecute cases of acid violence for extra-legal reasons,” she adds.

However, Sam Prachea Manith, director of the cabinet at the Ministry of Justice, yesterday defended court officials’ handling of acid cases.

“Judges and prosecutors work hard in all cases, including acid attack cases. Acid attacks are criminal cases that judges and prosecutors can’t tolerate, and they consider the case very carefully,” he said. “Our minister always advises them to be fair.”

The reported number of acid attacks has fallen dramatically to just three in 2013, since peaking at 27 in 2010, said Erin Bourgois, program manager at CASC. However, she added, only two cases have been sentenced under the new law, and it is still unclear whether it is directly responsible for the decrease.

“I think that the understanding of the law needs to be more widely disseminated to lawyers, to judges, to courts,” Bourgois said, noting many of the same challenges explored by Beijer.

“While it’s great that we have a legal mechanism, we need all parts of it to work,” she added. ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY CHHAY CHANNYDA

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