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How to combat acid violence

Sahar Bandial

Horrific memories have a staying power, easily rekindled upon the appropriate trigger. The tragic end of Fakhra Younus in Rome last month was one such trigger. It took me back to the summer afternoon, some years ago, at the Mayo Hospital in Lahore: a dark room with a hospital bed covered by a makeshift protective tent and a muffled voice emanating from behind. A disfigured limb reached out; I stepped closer to encounter a persona, not recognisable in its physical form as human, melted away indiscriminately by the corrosive acid thrown on her by her spouse. Words of comfort and promises of redress and legal action offered by the team of aid workers I accompanied did little to move the maimed woman, who had resigned to the dictates of fate, uninterested in seeking justice. The image is hard to forget and evokes horror, disgust, guilt and insecurity even today. It epitomises the capacity of evil, the frailty of life and the desperate dependability of women on patriarchal social norms and structures that remain untouched by a passive, and at times, complicit legal system.

Our legislature appears cognisant of the evil of acid violence and has taken the initial steps to redress it. The Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Act passed last December — through the insertion of Section 336-A and 336-B in the Pakistan Penal Code — has explicitly identified “causing hurt by dangerous means or substance”, including any corrosive substance or acid, as a crime. It also provides for stringent punishment, extending to life imprisonment. However, the definitional clarity brought by the Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Act is not a sufficient response to the incidence of acid crimes in Pakistan, where over 700 cases of acid violence have been reported since 2006. Violence against women is recognised as a human rights violation that states are duty-bound to guard against. Under the due diligence standard identified by the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) committee as a tool to assess state action, Pakistan is duty-bound to introduce and enforce appropriate measures for the prevention, protection, investigation, prosecution and punishment of all forms of gender violence, whether perpetrated by the state or private actors. Whether the Acid and Burn Crime Bill 2012 — which is a follow-up to the Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Act — meets these due diligence requirements, if approved by the federal and provincial assemblies, will have to await determination.

The experience of Bangladesh indicates that a legislative enactment that criminalises acid violence within a supporting legal framework that ensures effective and timely investigation, speedy trials and legal support to victims, can cause a significant reduction in the incidence of the crime. Following the promulgation of the Acid Crime Control Act 2002, in Bangladesh, reported cases of acid violence have fallen from 416 cases in 2003 to 84 cases in 2011 as reported by the Acid Survivors Foundation. The 2002 Act criminalises the commission of attempting to and abetting in ‘hurt by acid’ and specifies applicable sanctions. This aspect of the Bangladeshi law deserves particular reference because of its regulation and oversight of investigative and prosecutorial procedures in acid violence cases. The Act establishes special tribunals to prosecute ‘hurt by acid’ and mandates a verdict within a period of 90 days from the date of receipt of the file. Investigating agencies, too, operate on a defined time frame of 30 days to complete requisite investigations and are subject to review and scrutiny by the special tribunal, empowered under the Act to call for the replacement of investigating officers (if their actions seem wanting) and command censure for their negligence or tardy investigations by relevant superior authorities. Moreover, victim support centres established under the Act at police stations provide protection against intimidation to victims and witnesses, further reinforcing the investigative process.

Underlying this regulatory aspect of the Bangladeshi Act is the acknowledgment that systemic failures of delayed prosecution and inadequate and tampered investigations permit perpetrators of acid crimes to employ their sociopolitical prowess to manipulate and outwit the criminal justice system. Fakhra Younus eventually succumbed to these structural failures.

The Bangladeshi experience carries an important lesson. It is not argued that the Bangladeshi acid crime prevention regime is foolproof. In fact, gaps in the legal system permit lapses in investigation, police corruption, gender bias and witness intimidation — problems that are equally descriptive of our legal system. The Bangladeshi model should guide Pakistan in meeting the dictates of the due diligence standard to eliminate all forms of violence against women. For a start, the federal and provincial legislature should, as recommended by the National Commission on the Status of Women, pass the Acid and Burn Crime Bill 2012, which in a manner similar to the Bangladeshi enactment regulates the investigation and trial of acid violence and provides free legal aid and medical and rehabilitation services to victims. It is also critical that state undertakes measures to prevent commission of the crime and protect victims. The state of Pakistan should put in place an effective reporting system and an emergency response scheme that permits and trains investigation and law enforcement agencies to respond to acid violence. A mechanism should ensure monitoring and enforcement of protective orders, forbidding perpetrators or potential perpetrators from contacting victims and providing shelter where victims may seek refuge. Only within a more comprehensive legal system can the state’s criminalisation of ‘hurt by acid’ and its commitment to gender equality and elimination of gender violence bear fruit. Failure to discharge its due diligence duties through the provision of such a framework will render Pakistan complicit in the violation of human rights of its own people.

Victims of acid violence may find little consolation in what has been achieved thus far in the fight against the vilest form of domestic violence. Indeed, there was no consolation for Fakhra Younus or the despondent woman who lay under the protective tent at Mayo Hospital. However, there exists a pro-reform sentiment now that must be capitalised upon to spare future victims from the woeful fate that befell these women.

The Express Tribune

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