India’s acid attack victims wait for years to get justice


India has one of the highest rates of acid violence in the world, yet a backlog of criminal cases means it can take up to a decade for courts to reach a judgment and most victims receive no compensation, legal experts said on Wednesday.

Globally, there are as many as 1,500 recorded acid attacks each year with more than 1,000 cases estimated to occur in India alone. However, many attacks go unreported because victims are too afraid of reprisals to come forward, they said in a report.

The majority of victims are women, attacked over domestic or land disputes, a rejected marriage proposal or spurned sexual advances, the report said.

Attackers frequently target the head and face to maim, disfigure and blind, said Acid Survivors Trust International (ASTI), which commissioned the report. Victims are left with lifelong physical and psychological scars.

Despite the severity of the crime, acid remains easily available in India where it is used in manufacturing and the processing of cotton and rubber, despite a 2013 Supreme Court order to curb sales.

“Acid is still very, very easily available and a litre of acid can be purchased for as little as $0.75, and can be bought in most towns and villages in India,” said ASTI Executive Director Jaf Shah.

India made acid attacks a specific criminal offence in 2013, and the Supreme Court this year ruled that victims should receive free medical treatment and minimum compensation of $4,500.

Analysing 55 cases of acid violence in India, the report, based on research done in 2014, found that on average it takes between five and 10 years for a legal case to be concluded.

“(This) is in itself pretty astonishing, and damning in terms of how the judiciary and investigation procedures work in dealing with acid attack cases in India,” Shah said.

Compensation was awarded in only nine cases, and ranging from $750 to $75,000.

Choking with cases:

The study facilitated by the pro bono legal service of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, TrustLaw, examines laws relating to acid violence in Britain, Cambodia, Colombia and India.

Besides India, the highest rates of acid attacks are in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Colombia, Pakistan, Nepal and Uganda.

Poongkhulali Balasubramanian, pro bono coordinator at J. Sagar Associates, which compiled the study, said problems in India prosecuting acid violence cases were related to a creaking justice system rather than the nature of the crime.

“They are problems which ail any large jurisdiction or country with a large population, which is choking with the amount of cases,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“The fact that these cases are prosecuted through the same system means they end up suffering from the same kind of delays and poor investigation.”

The solution is for more courts to be set up, particularly courts specialising in violence against women, combined with stronger witness protection programmes, Balasubramanian said.

Faster justice would also lessen the chance of evidence being tampered with and out-of-court deals struck between victim and the accused, she added.

The report recommended that countries should consider adopting a system used in Britain, which allows victims to sue for compensation independent of the criminal prosecution system.

In response to the scale of the violence in India, the group, “Make love not scars”, has launched a campaign to raise awareness of acid violence.

It has posted a makeup tutorial with Reshma Bano Qureshi, who local media say was left severely scarred and missing an eye after her brother-in-law threw sulfuric acid on her face.

In the YouTube video, viewed more than 1 million times since being uploaded a week ago, Qureshi demonstrates how to get “perfect red lips” before pointing out that red lipstick is as easily available as concentrated acid.