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Editor's Note
Features
In Focus Health Highlights
International Health

Spring 2002; Volume 3, Number 1
International Health

Acid Attacks: Bangladesh's Efforts to Stop the Violence
page 1 | page 2 | page 3 | endnotes

Prosecution

Until recently, perpetrators of acid violence largely went unpunished. According to Dhaka's The Daily Star on 14 January 2001, "participants at an opinion exchange programme on 'social initiatives to prevent acid pouring'... observed that despite the enactment of a new women repression prevention law, such crime continues unabated thanks to lack of proper implementation of the law and negligence by the law enforcing agencies [sic]."[13] However, some victories have occurred in the past several years. Of approximately 750 reported assaults since 1998, 25 perpetrators have been found guilty. A sentence is commensurate with the extent of burning sustained by the victim, and is usually a life sentence or the death penalty. Of the 25 guilty sentences handed down, 9 have prescribed the death penalty in cases where the victim was partially or fully blinded. Punishment is harsh because acid violence is always considered a pre-meditated crime; a perpetrator must plan out the attack in order to obtain acid and sneak up on the victim.

According to both ASF and Naripokkho, the judicial system is the key interface in fighting acid violence. Morrison points out that acid violence was rampant in Europe and the U.S. in the 1800s, but died out by the 1840s due to improvements in police forces and the court system.[14] However, the legal system in Bangladesh, especially in the lower levels of courts, is fraught with corruption, political influence, and delays. In July, the annual world corruption rankings compiled by Transparency International named Bangladesh as the most corrupt country in the world.[15] For example, the case brought against Jannatul's assailant has been held up because the magistrate in her district recently decided to take a two-month vacation. Police and attorneys are known to prosecute scapegoats in place of the accused perpetrator if he or his family has political influence. Some culprits are able to post bail, despite the severity of their cases.[16] According to Naripokkho officials, a prison warden even directed the execution of a scapegoat who was in prison for a minor crime but loathed by the guards, in place of the real attacker, who paid off the warden.[17]

Recently, the Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association, a partner of ASF, has drafted public interest litigation against easy access to acid and presented it to the Bangladeshi government. Although it is currently under review by the Ministry of Law, progress was hampered by the quintannual national election process, which essentially closed the government for several months before and after the October election.

In addition to NGO efforts to publicize the inefficiency of Bangladesh's criminal justice system, foreign diplomatic pressure has progressively addressed acid violence. Urging from British dignitaries during recent meetings in Dhaka and London apparently provoked high-ranking Bangladeshi officials, including the Prime Minister, to personally direct the judicial system to devote attention to particular cases receiving high international visibility. While this is a noble start, political pressure on a case-by-case basis is far from a sustainable solution to a problem that claims hundreds of victims per year. The United States Department of State and the United States Agency for International Development have also been active in promoting judicial expedience and financing police training in basic investigative techniques and evidence presentation in courts. According to U.S. officials, "this sorely needed training is Bangladesh's best hope for bringing criminals to justice, thereby sending a message that no society will tolerate such horrors."[18]

Conclusion

Acid violence is another horrible chapter in the book of human rights abuses in Bangladesh. The NGO efforts launched in the 1990s have led to significant gains in public awareness campaigns and medical treatment, as well as contributed to the creation of an environment of concern, sympathy, and compassion. One especially positive aspect of efforts against acid violence is that Bangladeshis, especially women, have been a strong driving force against them. Explains Dr. Morrison, "Bangladeshis are outright shocked and ashamed that the attacks happen here."[19] Naripokkho officials agree with Morrison. By a similar token, in a society that has historically oppressed women, it is encouraging to see men vigorously campaigning against a crime that predominantly affects women. ASF reports that for its first nine months of operation, it was sustained solely by donations from Bangladeshi people. Since then, it has reached out to international resources, but indigenous support is very strong. Also, Morrison reports that all but two ASF staff members are female and many are acid survivors.

Nonetheless, it is concerning that the work of NGOs has not resulted in a significant decrease in the annual number of attacks in the past several years. This is clearly an indication of the complexity of the problem rather than an implication of unworthy efforts against it. In looking for a conclusive solution, we are guided by the words of Bangladeshi physician Dr. Samonta Lal Sen, who believes that proper treatment can improve the condition of an acid victim but the loss inflicted is not completely recoverable. "We have no other option than stopping incidents of acid pouring."[20] While the recent increase in the number of convictions is encouraging, Bangladesh still suffers from a poorly trained police force and a backlogged court system, both rife with corruption. Therefore, most perpetrators still go unpunished. If history is a lesson, a marked decrease in acid attacks will not occur until the Bangladeshi police and legal systems become more quick and effective, the prerequisite for which is probably a revolution at the heart of the Bangladeshi political system.

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