Thursday, March 15, 2012

Acid Law pushed by survivors

Two acid-attack victims from Sihanoukville watched yesterday as their appeal for continued investigation was rejected on procedural grounds, but other survivors, activists and legal experts used the opportunity to call for strong implementation of the new Acid Law.

In a hearing that lasted 15 minutes, Appeal Court judge Tang Sun Lay said the court could not proceed with the case because the provincial prosecutor had not filed the appeal.

The victims, Ouch Sovan Phal, 26, and Hov Srey Neang, 24, along with Ouch Sovan Phal’s parents, filed a complaint against the provincial court last year without the help of a lawyer when it acquitted two suspects and dropped the case.

The pair were riding on a motor-cycle in 2010 when they were doused with acid by the unknown female passenger of another motorcycle.

Visibly frustrated, four acid-attack survivors who had accompanied the plaintiffs to the hearing  stormed out of the courtroom along with the victim’s father when the verdict was announced.

Mak Mary, 50, Ouch Sovan Phal’s mother, wept outside the courtroom,  saying she was devastated by the court officials’ rejection. 

“I asked them [the court] if we can file the complaint again, but they said it is too late because the plaintiff or victims have only one month to file the complaint to the Appeal Court, and my case took place many months ago,” she said.  Her son, half his face and both arms covered with burn scars, said that although upset, he still hoped for justice.

Medical and legal manager for the Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity Horng Lairapo said the NGO will appeal to the Minister of Justice on the victims’ behalf.  

Meanwhile, victim advocates and survivors called for more cases to be sentenced under the new Acid Law, which passed in December and is designed to better control access to acid and more strictly punish perpetrators of attacks.

Two attacks have taken place since the law’s passage, both of which have seen no arrests.

After the court session, CASC counsellor Sam Bunnarith, 40, himself blinded in an acid attack, said he welcomed the passing of the Acid Law, but was sceptical about its implementation.

“I am afraid that the court will use corruption to get money from suspects in order to drop the case against them,” said Sam Bunnarith, adding that the law would be useless in that case.

Of the 10 acid attacks recorded by the Cambodian Ending Acid Violence Research and Advocacy project in 2011, only two had resulted in arrests and one an actual sentence, Cambodian Centre for Human Rights researcher Sorn Ramana said.

She highlighted the difficulty of victims in identifying attackers, which necessitated specialized investigation.  “Acid attack is a new field for police, with the law just passed. There is no training for this specific area,” she said.

The police were also limited by the criminal procedure code, said executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project Sok Sam Oeun.

“More power has been given to the investigating judge, many of whom do not trust the prosecutor or police. So the judge has no investigator, no money and no means [to investigate cases properly],” he said.

The handling of the new law was being watched by observers abroad, said film-maker Dr Patti Duncan, who co-produced the documentary Finding Face, about Cambodian acid survivor Tat Marina.

“The new law, if implemented, is a step in the right direction. Holding perpetrators accountable [would help] to end years of impunity surrounding acid attacks in Cambodia,” she said by email.