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Pakistan Set to Pass Landmark Bill to Combat Acid Terrorism

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Last week, the government of Pakistan announced that it would push the National Assembly to pass the long-awaited Acid Control and Burn Crime Prevention Bill this month. The bill, first introduced in January 2010, emerged from collaboration among the Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF), the National Commission on Status of Women, the United Nations Development Fund for Women, and the Pakistan Ministry of Women Development. While passage is nearly certain, it remains to be seen whether the government will make a sincere attempt to implement this legislation -- and, moreover, how effective its effort at enforcement may be.

Nicholas Kristof called acid attacks "terrorism that's personal." Assailants choose acid for simple reasons: it is cheap and widely available, assault with acid is penalized relatively lightly or goes unpunished, and its effects are almost incomprehensibly devastating. When it does not kill, acid leaves victims in agony -- disfigured, deformed, and sometimes blinded. Their limbs may be fused in the position they held when burned. For those with access to medical care surgery may lessen complications and reduce disfigurement, but survivors struggle to overcome both physical and mental injury and social stigma for the rest of their lives.

Destroying a victim's life may cost anything from the 100,000 rupees some attackers have reported being promised in Pakistan -- about $1,170 USD -- to the 60 Euro cents -- just $1 USD -- it takes to buy a kilo of acid in Bangladesh. In Southeast Asia, girls may be attacked with acid for going to school, talking to men, turning down marriage proposals, or having inadequate dowries, as may men and women whose spouses suspect them of infidelity. One Pakistani woman, Zainab Bibi, was just 12 when she turned down the suitor who would destroy her face with acid as punishment five years later. Across the world in Canada, the United States, and Britain, the incidence of acid attacks has also risen. Two years ago in London, an abusive boyfriend paid an assailant to throw acid on Katie Piper, burning her so badly that surgeons had to create a new face.

In Pakistan, acid-related crimes are on the rise. Last year, ASF reported 48 acid attacks, as compared with just 30 such incidents in 2007. ASF figures suggest family members perpetrate nearly half of acid attacks (48 percent), rejected suitors are responsible for a quarter (25 percent), and "collateral damage" accounts for 12 percent. Yet Pakistan does not regulate the sale of acid adequately, albeit in part because it is a common household good. Existing legislation does not address acid-related crime specifically, allowing perpetrators to escape with light sentences -- or evade punishment altogether. Enforcement varies by region, the need for federal legislation setting minimum sentences and oversight of local implementation.

The breakdowns that reduce the likelihood of an assailant being brought to justice begin at the local level. Many assaults go unreported because of fear or lack of faith in law enforcement and the judicial system. When victims do report acid attacks, police may demand a bribe to investigate, refuse to investigate, or accept a bribe to drop the case. Prosecutors and courts are susceptible to the same extralegal influences. Illegal out-of-court settlements routinely deprive victims of formal justice and keep acid attacks out of the judicial system entirely.

Pakistan's Acid Control and Burn Crime Prevention Bill would create a National Acid Control Council and "comprehensively defin[e] hurt and disfigurement" as well as categorizing acids as dangerous substances, restricting their sale, more heavily penalizing "unlawful sales," and increasing the maximum sentence for disfigurement significantly -- in addition to setting a minimum sentence of seven years. Medical professionals would be required to report acid-related injuries to police. Further, the bill would define the victims of acid attacks as disabled, entitling them to government benefits, and provide for treatment, rehabilitation, and legal aid.

India and Cambodia have been debating passing similar legislation, and Bangladesh has already done so. Progress in India has stalled after the state reversed its position this year, withdrawing support for the proposed addition to the Indian Penal Code, Section 326A, to restrict the sale of acid and address acid-related offenses. If passed, Cambodia's law would regulate the sale of acids, set minimum sentences and increase the maximum sentence for acid-related offenses, and improve care for survivors. Tentative progress in Bangladesh suggests a reason for optimism. In 2002, Bangladesh enacted laws restricting the accessibility of acid and expanding sentencing options to include the death penalty. Although acid is still available in open markets, acid-related attacks may have begun to decrease.

Legislative reform will not necessarily translate into real change in Pakistan, but it marks progress. The National Assembly of Pakistan follows the Supreme Court of Pakistan in demonstrating specific, formal opposition to acid terrorism, laying the foundation for the cultural and social changes that must accompany legal reform. Initially, acid attacks were associated almost exclusively with honor killings and the punishment of women suspected of immoral conduct or acts of defiance, such as not wearing the hijab. Some opponents see the legislation as a restriction of their right to discipline family and take just action against perpetrators of immoral conduct. Meanwhile, critical supporters claim that the bill addresses the ideal with little regard for the real, disregarding the deficiencies of government infrastructure and social context. A Pakistani attorney involved in its drafting, Faisal Fareed, points to the disjunction between the legislation's mandate for free medical care and rehabilitation and the lack of medical facilities capable of providing such care.

Despite its flaws and the uncertainties and obstacles that lie ahead, the Acid Control and Burn Crime Prevention Bill represents a major step in combating acid terrorism in Pakistan. Its successful passage may also signal increased receptivity to the involvement of civil society and international organizations in policy reform.