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Asia

Cambodia drafts new law to combat rise in acid attacks

In a number of Asian countries, acid attacks which distort the victim's face have become a serious problem. Cambodia is the country most affected outside the South Asian subcontinent.

Dep Da and Som Bunnarith (in red shirts) now help other survivors come to term with their injuries.

Dep Da and Som Bunnarith (in red shirts) now help other survivors come to term with their injuries

The Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity (CASC) is based at a house on a hectare of land outside Phnom Penh. In the front room a group of a dozen men and women are resting or getting physiotherapy treatment. All have been burned by acid.

Statistics from CASC show that more than half of acid victims are deliberately attacked. CASC has recorded 103 people burned with acid in the past five years, with another 16 so far this year. But its coordinator Ziad Samman says the true number is likely far higher since CASC sees only a fraction of those hurt.

Easy availability of acid

Acid is cheap, widely used, and easily available in Cambodia. It delivers an extraordinarily graphic injury. In a deliberate attack, acid is often poured over the victim's face. It takes just seconds to melt facial features, and keeps burning through skin and even bone. Those who survive typically bear terrible scars.

In recent years the rising number of acid attacks has put pressure on the government to act. It recently drafted a law to deal with the problem.

"The government is dead serious. This cannot go on," says Sieng Lapresse, a senior official at the Ministry of Interior. "We do not allow this horrible weapon to kill our society and our own people."

Acid attack survivors in the treatment room at CASC, the Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity, outside Phnom Penh.

Acid attack survivors in the treatment room at CASC, the Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity, outside Phnom Penh

New law against the crime

Sieng Lapresse has been tasked with collating the draft law. He says the law, which should be passed before the end of the year, will regulate sales of acid, with vendors bearing legal responsibility for those to whom they sell it. Penalties for those found guilty of throwing acid will be severe.

"We are looking for from at least ten years to life in prison," he says.

Samman says people have a number of misconceptions about acid attacks: Many are surprised to learn that men comprise around half of CASC's 260 clients over the years.

Saroeun is one such victim. Until six months ago he worked as a security guard at a hotel in Phnom Penh, when an attacker poured acid on him. His face and right arm bear significant scarring. He welcomes the proposed new law.

"The new law is very significant for Khmer society as it targets those people who want to throw acid," says Saroeun. "I really want the government to strongly enforce this law against people who throw acid, because acid causes a lot of suffering and has a very dangerous effect."

Raising awareness

Saroeun would also like the government to outlaw discrimination by employers against people with disabilities.

CASC's anecdotal research indicates many people do not regard throwing acid as a crime. Educating about that and about how to provide first aid for victims - pouring water over the burn to dilute the acid - would also help.

One problem the law is unlikely to resolve is impunity for powerful people who have been behind several high-profile attacks in recent years.

Author: Robert Carmichael (Phnom Penh)
Editor: Grahame Lucas

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