Keo Srey Vy’s brother-in-law had been planning to sell his child so he could buy a new motorbike. When she threatened to tell the police, he went to the restaurant where she worked as a cook and doused her face with acid.
She reported the attack to police, but gave up after they demanded a bribe to investigate.
“I didn’t consider revenge, but I wanted a law that would catch him and bring him to justice, and that law did not exist,” Keo Srey Vy, who is severely scarred, told IRIN. A year after the attack, she may have reason for hope.
While countries such as Bangladesh and India have enacted severe laws and banned the open sale of chemicals, Cambodia had not taken any serious steps to curb the crime.
Under a new draft law on the use and management of acid, perpetrators of acid attacks would receive life sentences, the government said. Attacks resulting in minor injuries would come with a minimum five-year sentence.
“The law that we have today is not enough,” Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said. “I think that stronger punishment will make them [perpetrators] more afraid of the law.”
Statistics on acid attacks are unreliable since many cases go unreported. For most years since 2000, the Phnom Penh-based Cambodian Acid Survivors’ Charity (CASC) recorded 12-24 attacks. But between December 2009 and January 2010, 11 cases were recorded, raising the national profile of the problem.
The new law, according to the drafting committee, includes improved medical care and social integration programmes for survivors. The opening of a state-run medical centre for acid survivors is also being considered, although funding resources remain unclear.
Drafting committee deputy chairman Ouk Kimlek, who is also deputy national police commissioner, told local media the committee was planning to create “an acid foundation to generate money from all sources and NGOs to help provide skills and capital for them”. He did not elaborate on the level of the government’s contribution.
If you have a good law but it’s not enforced, it’s
Rights groups believe acid attacks abound in part because the caustic chemicals are readily and cheaply available. The draft law thus stipulates that importers and sellers of acid have to be at least 20 years old and licensed to carry out any transaction involving the chemical.
To assist police in criminal investigations, vendors would also have to record the details of anyone who buys acid. Retailers who fail to comply would be subject to fines and lose their licence to sell the product.
Local rights and survivors’ groups hailed the legislation as a necessary step in curbing attacks but sceptics questioned the government’s ability to ensure police enforcement of the new law.
“We have impunity in Cambodia for rape and murder; most victims are paid compensation, or the criminal is never caught,” Pung Chhiv Kek, president of the local rights group Licadho said. “If you have a good law but it’s not enforced, it’s useless.”
Illegal out-of-court settlements are common practice in Cambodia, and rights groups say they undermine efforts to discourage the crime.
“They pay US$200 or $300, which is hardly anything. When you have to eat, buy medicine, feed your family, [financial compensation] is never enough,” said Chhun Chenda Sophea, CASC’s programme manager. “They need to enforce the law strictly. If it’s being enforced, then people will be scared of committing the crime.”
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak agreed, saying the new legislation needed to coincide with an effort to “make the court system more responsible”.
The government has yet to set a deadline for completion of the final draft, which needs approval from two government offices, followed by a vote at the National Assembly.
Meanwhile, Keo Srey Vy sold her home to pay her medical fees, and now, at 36, she depends on the CASC. Three of her children live with her mother, and another boards with an NGO.
“I was very happy to hear about this new law because it can help reduce this crime,” she said. “I believe that if people know about the law, they wouldn’t dare attack people.”