Advocates praise the push for an acid law, but say enforcement is crucial
TWO litres of a corrosive acid altered Mean Sokreoun’s life forever. Fifteen years ago, she was a vivacious 22-year-old living with the man she loved.
However, on a muggy evening in May 1995, all of that changed as she lay in front of the television. She felt a sudden burning sensation over her body. A woman had walked in and poured a container full of acid over her. Mean Sokreoun leapt to her feet and felt, to her horror, the corrosive liquid eating through her skin. Parts of her face – including her nose and one ear – melted away and fell to the floor. She struggled helplessly to catch them. But the damage was already done.
‘I feel like a dead person’
Today, Mean Sokreoun lives in poverty, squatting on a small plot of land near Takhmao town. She had to sell her home and her land to pay for years of treatment on the scars that left much of her body disfigured.
Sitting in front of her home Wednesday, she pulled back her shirt to show what the acid did to her body. Scars lined her right leg and arms. The acid had scorched much of her torso, eating through skin and a breast.
Her hands fumbling, she lifted off the krama covering her face. The acid had seared through her right ear, nose and lips. It had melted the skin on her face and left her blind.
“It has been very difficult for me to live through all these years,” Mean Sokreoun said. “Even though I am alive, I feel like a dead person.”
It took 10 years of medical care, she said, to treat her horrific injuries. It took even longer for the woman who attacked her to be brought to justice.
Mean Sokreoun’s assailant – her husband’s jealous ex-wife – went unpunished for years after the attack. Police did not arrest her until March of last year. Later that month, she was convicted in a quick trial. She received a five-year prison term – a punishment Mean Sokreoun said was woefully insufficient.
“I think it is a very short time to sentence the perpetrator in jail for what she did to me,” said Mean Sokreoun, who added that she never received a court-ordered payment of US$7,000.
“I lost my eyes, nose, an ear and other parts of my body because she attacked me. And now the court has given such a light sentence. The court’s decision does not fit with my injuries and the suffering I have,” she said.
Her 71-year-old father, his hair flecked with wiry grey, looked on as she recounted her story.
“I want the government and court officials to give justice to my daughter,” Roth Mean said. “I’m so disappointed with the courts in our country. I won’t believe in the courts until I see justice for my daughter.”
Mean Sokreoun’s case highlights the complexities facing authorities drafting a new law to combat acid violence.
Advocates for acid attack survivors praise the government for its efforts. But they also warn that the justice system must be able to enforce the law if it is to be successful.
Her situation is not unique, according to Chhun Sophea, the programme manager with the Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity, who said it has become the norm for perpetrators of acid attacks to walk free.
“I think very few cases have been prosecuted,” she said.
There are many reasons for this. Perpetrators often negotiate deals with victims, offering them money if they agree not to go to police, Chhun Sophea said. And victims routinely accept, preferring to take the money rather than deal with lengthy and costly legal proceedings.
Sometimes the reasons are even more basic, Chhun Sophea said.
“It could be a lack of evidence,” she said. “A lot of times, the victim doesn’t even know what has happened. By the time she realises she has been attacked by acid, the perpetrator is long gone.”
Following a spate of publicised attacks earlier this year, authorities moved to piece together a law aiming to reduce incidents of acid violence.
Officials on the committee drafting the law have proposed tough punishments – including life in prison – for severe acid crimes. Currently, perpetrators like Mean Sokreoun’s assailant are only charged with simple assault. The five-year term her attacker received was the maximum possible.
In addition to punishments, the committee is also mulling articles that would allow for assistance to survivors and impose strict regulations covering the sale of acid.
Many of these articles – particularly those covering punishments – have been praised by those who advocate on behalf of victims.
Even though questions remain concerning the ability of the justice system to process such cases, Chhun Sophea is encouraging the government to push forward with the law.
“They are writing it, so I think we need to acknowledge that they are moving in a positive direction,” she said.
Ouk Kimlek, the committee’s deputy director, said earlier this year that the draft law would be finalised shortly after Khmer New Year, though officials this week said they did not know exactly when the process would be completed.
Mean Sokreoun said she, too, supports the law, though she is acutely aware of the fact that it will do little to change her circumstances.
“I think the government is a bit late to create an acid law for me. If the government had this law before I was attacked, it would have helped me to see justice,” she said.
“I feel angry that the government is just starting to create the law. But I am happy that we will have an acid law. It will be good for the next victims.”
Meanwhile, authorities in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district are searching for clues in another acid crime.
Officials say the victim, 30-year-old Lay Chanthou, was on her way to a market in Boeung Tumpun commune Tuesday when she was attacked.
“A man on a motorbike drove up to her and doused her with acid, then drove away,” said commune chief Sous Sarin.
He said the acid damaged the woman’s face and neck. She was sent to a private clinic, then later to hospital, he said.
“We are investigating this case, but it seems difficult because no one can identify a suspect,” he said.