September Issue 2014

By | Featured News | Society | Published 10 years ago

It was the week before Eid-ul-Fitr and the atmosphere was festive. Markets around the country were bustling with Eid shoppers. The joy was palpable — the long, hot month of Ramazan was coming to an end and celebrations were well deserved. But not everyone shared this sentiment. In one part of Pakistan, things took an ominous turn: masked men entered a jewellery shop in Quetta, sprayed acid on the four women present there and fled. The women, all in their twenties, suffered burns on their faces and necks. A day later, men on motorbikes repeated this heinous crime in Mastung, by spraying acid on two teenage sisters who were returning home from a market. In both cases, the targets were women who had chosen to venture out in public without male chaperones.

Balochistan’s Chief Minister Dr Abdul Malik Baloch responded by making all the right noises. He contended that “Islamic teachings and tribal traditions do not allow such brutal acts,” and ordered police officials to arrest the perpetrators as soon as possible. However, no one has yet been apprehended for these crimes, and to compound them, a mere week after the CM’s statements, six more women became the target of an acid attack in Balochistan’s Pishin district, this time allegedly owing to a “family dispute.”

Acid attacks, which involve throwing a corrosive chemical, such as nitric or sulphuric acid, on a person’s body or face, usually targeting women, have been carried out in Balochistan in the past. In 2010, the self-styled Baloch Ghairatmand Group (the Honourable Baloch Group), a previously unknown entity, claimed responsibility for a similar attack on two women in a market in Dalbandin city. The group threatened other women with similar consequences if they left their houses without the hijab, unaccompanied by male relatives. However, acid attacks are not restricted to the province.

According to the Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF), a Pakistani NGO, there were approximately 143 such attacks in Pakistan in 2013, which predominantly targeted women. The actual number may be higher, given that many such attacks go unreported. The majority of these (around 56 per cent) occurred in southern Punjab, followed by northern Sindh. Motives for acid attacks vary. Some are acts of revenge by scorned men and jilted suitors, as a form of retaliation in family and land disputes, and some are the work of abusive husbands and in-laws. In others, perpetrators claim to be driven by the desire to “restore” family or male “honour, be-smirched by female relatives,” who married out of their choice, left their husbands, ran away from home or engaged in illicit relationships. Islamist militant groups have also used acid attacks to terrorise women and restrict their autonomy and mobility by confining them to their homes.  For instance, the outlawed Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) carried out a series of acid attacks in Parachinar in Kurram Agency,  to deter girls from going to school. “We will never allow the girls of this area to get a western education and will target other girls going to university in the same way,” warned Qari Muhavia, the local head of the TTP, while claiming responsibility for the attack.

A Pakistani acid-attack victim, Sabira (L) shouts slogans as she marches with other activists of the Progressive Women's Association (PWA) during a demonstration near The Parliament House in Islamabad, 09 March 2004. Some three hundred women took part in the demonstration demanding that the government put a halt to domestic and social violence commited aganist the women of Pakistan. AFP PHOTO/Jewel SAMAD

The easy availability of acid, used for various industrial purposes, most commonly in the cotton industry, makes for a cheap weapon of choice for perpetrators aiming to cause deadly and long-term harm to their victims. Acid attacks usually result in immediate death, and those who survive suffer severe burns, major disfigurement, scarring and/or blindness. Along with the horrific physical and psychological trauma inflicted on victims is the economic hardship that usually ensues through loss of earnings and medical expenses. There is also emotional distress on account of the social stigma accompanying such crimes, followed by discrimination and rejection by families and communities. Compounding these problems is the lax attitude of police and other state officials who typically treat such crimes as private/family disputes and pressurise victims to avoid investigation and prosecution by settling the matter out of court. Even when cases reach the court, laws such as the Qisas (retribution or equal punishment for a crime) and Diyat (blood money) Ordinance, which deal with bodily injury, murder, and attempted murder, allow assailants to escape justice. Under the Qisas and Diyat Ordinance, the relatives of a victim have the right to forgive or enter a compromise involving monetary or other forms of compensation with the accused. This usually allows the perpetrator, especially when he is a relative, to gain forgiveness and/or exchange money and walk free, leaving the victim vulnerable to future harassment.

In recent years, acid attacks in Pakistan have received widespread publicity and much needed national and international attention. Such attacks and their impact on the lives of survivors were the subject of the 2012 Oscar winning documentary Saving Face by Pakistani filmmaker Sharmeen-Obaid Chinoy. Cases involving “high profile” individuals have also garnered extensive media coverage. An oft-cited case is that of Fakhra Younis, a dancer from Karachi, who was married to Bilal Khar, the son of prominent politician Ghulam Mustafa Khar. Alleging verbal and physical abuse, Fakhra left him after three years of marriage only to have him douse her with acid while she slept in her mother’s house. As a result, she suffered grievous injuries: her face was completely disfigured, she was blinded in one eye and could barely breathe or speak. Over the course of the next decade, she went through three dozen reconstruction surgeries in Italy where she was granted asylum. However, the physically scarred and emotionally exhausted Fakhra committed suicide in Italy in 2012.  Khar, who denied carrying out the attack, was never prosecuted/punished because of his political clout.

Cases like Fakhra’s and the continuing incidence of acid attacks prompted the Pakistani parliament to legislate against acid crimes. In 2011, the Criminal Law Amendment Act, which deals with such crimes, was promulgated. Drawing on a similar 2002 law regulating acid crimes in Bangladesh, another country with a high incidence of acid attacks, the Act made changes in the Pakistan Penal code by making acid attacks “a crime against the state.” It further laid down that those “who disable, disfigure or deface any person” by using a corrosive substance would be liable to imprisonment from 14 years to life and a minimum fine of Rs 1 million. Since it was promulgated, the law has made some difference. According to a report titled ‘Fostering Effective Implementation of Pro Human Rights Laws: Criminal Law Amendment Act 2011 (Act XXV),’ launched jointly by the Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF) and the National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW), the registration of First Information Reports (FIRs) against the crime rose from one per cent in 2012 to almost 71 per cent in 2013. The report also highlighted that under the new law, those who are prosecuted and convicted tend to receive harsher sentences, at least 20 years, up from six to 10 years in 2011. However, prosecution rates still remain low, a mere 35 per cent The weakness in the investigation process, the absence of witness and victim protection and drawn out trials impede the process of law enforcement and continue to mitigate against the law’s benefits.

Unlike the Bangladeshi law, the Criminal Law Amendment Act 2011 failed to include restrictions on the unregulated market for acid which remains a critical factor in facilitating the incidence of acid crimes. It also lacks provisions for the treatment and rehabilitation of acid attack survivors. Additionally, while the Bangladeshi law set up an Acid Crime Control Tribunal endowed with the power to investigate police officers for negligence in preventing an acid attack or investigating it, the Pakistani law has no such provision. Given that police are the primary point of contact for acid attack survivors, ensuring that they fulfil their obligations remains critical.

Civil society activists and parliamentarians have taken steps to address some of these shortcomings by formulating a comprehensive and substantive Acid Throwing and Burn Crimes Bill which was moved in the parliament in 2012 by Dr Attiya Inyatullah (MNA, PML-Q) and co-signed by 11 parliamentarians. The proposed bill distinguished between “acid” and “burn” crimes and defines the latter as attacks “caused by fire and any other hot substances.” It laid down harsher punishments for acid and burn crimes and emphasised a speedy investigation process (within 14 days of registering an FIR). Under the bill, police and state officials who are found negligent in carrying out their duties with regard to acid crimes are liable to imprisonment and fines. It also laid down provisions for the protection of witnesses. Additionally, it called for the setting up of an Acid and Burn Crime Monitoring Board to ensure proper implementation of the law, “to formulate policies of treatment and rehabilitation and to provide legal aid to acid and burn crime victims.” The bill also calls upon the government to set up rehabilitation facilities for survivors.  However, the bill has languished in parliament since 2012. In April 2014, the Acid and Burn Crimes bill was reintroduced and tabled by Marvi Memon (MNA, PML-N) in the National Assembly. It has yet to be passed. Also missing is legislation restricting and regulating the sale, production and trafficking of acid, given that it faces severe opposition from the industrial sector who oppose any form of control mechanisms on the production and use of acid.

As the joint ASF and NCSW report highlights, legal reform remains critical in addressing heinous gender crimes such as acid attacks. Pakistan has taken an important step by criminalising acid crimes through the Criminal Law Amendment Act 2011. However, a recent spike in such attacks in the country shows that a more comprehensive and substantive law is needed, which deters perpetrators from carrying out such crimes by addressing loopholes and implementation problems in the prevailing legislation. The proposed Acid and Burn Crime Bill 2014 aims to do that, but to be truly effective it also needs to be combined with legislation that imposes strict controls and checks on the sale and distribution of acid. Only by promulgating these provisions into law can Pakistan hope to ensure that acid crimes are curtailed. Without that, Pakistani women will remain vulnerable to the horrific violence of acid attacks.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s September 2014 issue.