Amidst the judicio-political scandal concerning Justice Arshad Malik and PMLN, a ruling by Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khosa failed to garner the attention it deserved. This week in a landmark judgment, the Supreme Court rejected a plea for acquittal filed by an acid attack convict whose victim had supposedly forgiven him. During the hearing, the top judge stated: “Burning someone with acid is a bigger crime than murder. Acid attack offenders do not deserve any clemency. The affected woman may well forgive (the convict), but the law cannot forgive an acid attack suspect.” He further went on to add that perhaps the affected woman was “threatened into going to the Supreme Court to give a statement (of forgiveness).”
At the end of the day even forgiveness was not enough to allow a man guilty of attacking a woman with acid to escape punishment for his heinous crime. The 11thof July 2019 must be remembered as a historic day for acid attack victims in Pakistan; on this day the Supreme Court set a precedent which would impact future acid attack cases and be a ray of hope for the disfigured victims. In Pakistan forced confessions (especially in rural areas) are not uncommon. People in certain sectors of our society see themselves as above the law and hence more capable of sorting out matters concerning their family members. They don’t need judges, lawyers and the law; the whole system takes too much time and money. But justice cannot be customized.
St Jerome, a 4thcentury theologian, once wrote: ‘Someone may ask, “How is justice greater than all the other virtues?” The other virtues gratify the one who possesses them; justice does not give pleasure to the one possessing it, but instead pleases others.’Let us momentarily believe, perhaps the victim in question did genuinely want to forgive the man who burnt her face into an unrecognizably shocking shape. Let us momentarily assume the honorable Judge granted her request and allowed the attacker to walk free. Would this man have any regret? It is unlikely. But as we are assuming the best in people momentarily, let us assume he walks away with regret. The problem arises when another man considers throwing acid on another woman. This man doesn’t need to hesitate. He knows there is a way to get away with it: forgiveness.
By ruling that the law cannot forgive an acid attack convict, the honorable Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khosa has offered some much needed relief to the most vulnerable women in our country. Acid attacks are not easily preventable crimes because access to the lethal chemicals is not very difficult. Laws are in place to restrict the commercial sale and purchase of acids in the market. A dealer is required to get an NOC from the Civil Defense Department which they obtain upon proving that they are in compliance with the required safety measures to sell the acids. If a dealer violates the rules, he is given a preliminary warning. A continued breach will lead to the shop being sealed. However, focusing on the commercial sale and purchase of acids is an incomplete strategy.
Sulfuric and nitric acids are the most frequently used chemicals to attack and disfigure women. Sulfuric acid is commonly found in household cleaners such as drain de-cloggers and toilet bowl cleaners. It can also easily be derived by heating car battery acid. When you can use the internet to make a bomb using just items found within your household, how much more difficult can it be to find a liquid that will burn through human skin? Any deranged man on a mission to destroy the face of a woman who refused him, will succeed in finding an acid strong enough to eat away her skin. Raising awareness is often cited as a solution for preventing acid attacks. According to a report compiled by Acid Survivors Foundation, a 54.9 percent decrease in acid attacks across Pakistan was witnessed in 2015. Much of this decline has been attributed to the attention the issue garnered after Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s award winning documentary ‘Saving Face’.
Yet acid attacks in Pakistan continue to occur. An effective policy to address the issue lies in combining awareness with harsh punishments. The Acid and Burn Crime Bill 2018 was passed by the National Assembly and put before the Senate on 24thMay 2018. Section 6 of this bill states: (i) Life imprisonment shall be awarded to whoever commits or attempts to commit an offense of acid or burn attack and the act results in the death of any person.(ii) Up to 7 years of rigorous imprisonment to whoever intentionally causes injury by acid and burn attacks. But is this punishment good enough? An acid attack impacts a woman both psychically and emotionally for life. Her own face may terrify her. For the rest of her life she will only see scars in the mirror, while the man who gave her the scars will only see 7 years of prison walls. Where is the justice in this? An individual found guilty of acid attack should suffer for the rest of his life too. There must be no forgiveness.