Reforms required in Nepal’s acid laws
An average of 40 cases of acid attacks is registered every year in Nepal. Acid attack cases in Nepal got its first major highlight in 2015 when 16-year-old Sunita Magar and her friend Sima Basnet were attacked by Jiwan BK at Basantapur, Kathmandu. The perpetrator faced 10 years imprisonment after being convicted for attempt to murder.
At the time, there were no provisions of compensation. It was only in 2017, when both acid attack survivors with the help of Forum for Women, Law, and Development (a women’s rights group) filed a case and the Supreme Court ordered immediate compensation and treatment to acid attack victims.
Currently, Section 193 of the Criminal Code 2074 governs Acid laws under the wider terminology of Hurt law. For an attack on the face, the perpetrator will face 5 to 8 years of imprisonment and fine from 1 lakh to 5 lakh rupees. For an attack on the body, there is 3 to 5 years of imprisonment with fine from Rs 50,000 to 1 lakh. Additionally, the perpetrator bears the cost of treatment and the fine is fully given to the victim as compensation.
Even with changes to acid laws, acid attacks are still on the rise. The most recent case took place in Sitapaila, Kathmandu where a 22-year-old woman was attacked by Munna Mohammad on the command of Mohammad Alam.
Attacks are usually seen to be directed to women. However, even men have been victims of acid attacks. On March 9, Ramraja Thapa was attacked by his wife Parmila Thapa. Although he was admitted and given treatment, he was sent back due to the rising chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, his situation did not get as much media attention or financial assistance. His family is still facing hardships for getting money for his surgery.
His brother Subharaj Thapa, with the help of social activist Ujjwal Bikram Thapa, are trying to raise funds for his treatment. (Immediate help can be given by donating money through Subharaj’s Esewa no. 9851139045.) The accused Parmila who was in custody was released due to the fear of pandemic as well.
Nepal isn’t the only country affected by such a heinous crime. Acid attacks are prevalent in South Asian countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India as well. Looking at the pattern of the attacks, the reason for attacks in such countries is usually centred on hurt ego. Usually, when a woman rejects a man, the man feels humiliated and in return plots revenge to ruin the woman’s life by attempting an acid attack.
In many cases, women also have used acid attacks as a means to torture men who have rejected them. In India, 20-year-old Faizad Zafar was attacked after rejecting his perpetrator Muskaan Hilal’s (a woman) marriage proposal. It can be deduced that acid attack is not a direct attack on any gender but a cruel form of revenge and hate crime to hamper someone’s life.
India has provisions in Section 326 A of the Indian Penal Code of minimum ten-year imprisonment which can be increased to life imprisonment. Although the Supreme Court of India has ruled to ban acid sales, not much has changed.
According to Acid Survivors Trust International (ASIT), the UK is reported to have one of the highest rates of acid attacks per capita in the world. There were about 500 acid attack cases reported in 2018 alone. Surprisingly, statistics showed that both the victim and the perpetrator were usually men. The UK doesn’t have separate acid laws and perpetrators are convicted under Offences Against the Person Act 1861. If there is intent to injure or any bodily harm is caused, convicts face life imprisonment. Even when there is no intent but a bystander is affected, they serve up to 7 years of imprisonment.
To regulate acid sales, the UK has made amendments to Poison Acts. It is now a criminal offense for members of the public to possess sulphuric acid above 15 percent concentration without a license, offenders face a 2-year prison sentence and an unlimited fine.
Bangladesh is one of the forefront nations to take active actions against acid attacks. According to UN Women, between 1999 and 2013, a total of 3,512 Bangladeshi people were attacked with acid. The state brought the Acid Control Act 2002 and Acid Crime Prevention Acts 2002 which threatens death penalty for anyone convicted of an acid attack. Since then, 14 people have been sentenced to death and the rate of cases declined by 15-20 percent every year since 2002.
Lessons for Nepal
Nepal cannot introduce the death sentence as a form of strict punishment as it opposes Article 16 (2) of the Constitution. Yet, Nepal can make equally effective laws by considering the following:
Increase punishment under separate acid laws
Nepal should distinguish acid attacks from Hurt Law and establish a separate Acid Law like Bangladesh. The presence of specific provisions attaches a degree of seriousness to the crime and makes it easy for the prosecution to frame charges for prosecution. It also provides the opportunity to increase minimum punishment as well as include life imprisonment in serious cases.
Resolve controversy on “hurt or attempt to murder”
Controversy regarding whether acid crimes should be categorized as an attempt to murder or as personal injuries still exist. India and Colombia do not have any specific provisions to differentiate this. Hence, every case is judged differently. The intent (mens rea) must be considered very seriously in acid attacks.
Regulations on distribution, selling, handling and storing acid
According to findings of Nepal Chemical Society, the major loophole in acid laws is the regulation of acid sales. While it has been stricter since before, many culprits have admitted to buying acid under false reasons. A system needs to be placed where vendors can only sell to authentic buyers. Colombia creates a national record of the sale of acid and other corrosive substances of the manufacturer of the product as well as the consumer. If the acid is sold under the law and is used for crime, the commercial establishment will be closed. Such mechanisms can deter vendors from selling acid freely.
Help to survivors apart from compensation
Acid laws must also consider helping survivors integrate into society through awareness programs, rehabilitation, and education or job security. The Medical Care (Decree 1033) of Columbia provides comprehensive attention to survivors through first aid assistance, protection to the victim and their family, access to the courts to file claims against the perpetrators, and the continued employment of the survivors. Such attempts can significantly help survivors regain their confidence, all the while supporting their mental well-being.
Acid attacks ruin a person’s life and the pain is unimaginable to the unaffected. Acid attack survivors should be accommodated to be reintegrated into society as smoothly as possible. Hence, it is important to take preventive measures to stop such horrendous crimes through stricter laws.
The writer is pursuing BALLB at Kathmandu School of Law.
Published on 16 August 2020