Death sentence for acid attack gives hope to Indian campaigners

Next step after harsher punishments is stricter controls on sales of acid, activists say.
Acid attack victim Reshma Querishi models the Archana Kochhar collection at the Fashion Week in New York on September 8, 2016. Mary Altaffer / AP Photo
Acid attack victim Reshma Querishi models the Archana Kochhar collection at the Fashion Week in New York on September 8, 2016. Mary Altaffer / AP Photo

MUMBAI // A man who killed a nurse by throwing acid on her has been sentenced to death – the first time the death penalty has been imposed for such a case in India.

Ankur Panwar, 25, from Delhi threw sulphuric acid on 23-year-old Preeti Rathi in 2013, attacking her as she arrived at Bandra railway station in Mumbai to take up a post as a nurse with the navy. Her rejection of Panwar’s marriage proposal was the apparent motive for the attack. Rathi died of multiple organ failure a month later.

On Thursday, a special court for crimes against women ruled that Panwar must hang for his crime.

Campaigners against acid attacks welcomed the landmark judgment but said more needed to be done, including consistency in punishments and banning the sale of acid in shops.

Pranali Shah, the manager and coordinator for the western region at the Acid Survivors Foundation India (ASFI), said that “slowly, slowly” the punishment for such crimes in India was increasing.

“We have pleaded that henceforth any acid attacks happening in India, they should go for death sentence,” said Ms Shah. “And the acid should be totally banned from the market. People should not be able to go and buy it, and then the acid attacks will be stopped.”

Progress has been made in India and in 2013 acid attacks were recognised as an offence in their own category, carrying a penalty of a minimum of 10 years in jail, with the possibility of life imprisonment.

But Ms Shah said the penalties remained inconsistent, with some offenders getting away with their crimes.

On the day Panwar was sentenced, the issue of acid attacks was highlighted by the appearance of Reshma Qureshi on the catwalk at New York Fashion Week. The 19-year-old Indian lost her left eye and was left heavily disfigured after her sister’s estranged husband and his friends poured acid on her face two years ago. She hopes her modelling foray will raise awareness of the curse of acid attacks and inspire hope among other victims.

“Acid violence in India is caused majorly and mostly because of societal issues,” said Parth Sarthi, the resource manager of the Chhanv Foundation in New Delhi, which is leading the Stop Acid Attacks campaign. He was also instrumental in setting up the Sheroes Hangout Project, a cafe run by acid attack survivors. “There are plenty of initiatives taken but nothing considerable has been adopted to minimise attacks.”

The foundation welcomes the fact that harsher punishments have been put in place, but says that more needs to be done.

“To stop acid attacks, many efforts are being made to regulate the sale of acid in the open market but the law enforcement in that direction is weak,” said Mr Sarthi. “In our opinion rigorous campaigns should be done to make people aware about the existing laws and sensitising them about acid attacks en masse will help reduce acid attacks. Nothing of that sort is being done by the state governments.”

Reliable figures are hard to come by but according to ASFI’s data, there were 204 cases of acid attacks in India in 2014 and 249 cases last year. Many of these attacks occurred after the woman rejected a marriage proposal and the man sought revenge. In many instances, relatives carried out the attacks. It is rare for victims to die, but they are often blinded and invariably left badly disfigured, which deeply affects them psychologically and socially, and requires them to undergo a series of complex and expensive operations.

In December, India’s supreme court ordered state governments to provide free treatment to victims of acid attacks, who often need years of cosmetic surgery. But the costs are not always covered fully.

In 2013, a supreme court ruling regulated the sale of acid, barring anyone under the age of 18 from buying it and requiring photo identification for its purchase. But the rule is rarely enforced and acid can be very easily obtained in shops across India.

Ms Shah said that acid was needed only for industrial use and there was no need for it to be so readily available. The public must be made aware of the true horror of such attacks, she added.

But with many cases going unreported, Ms Shah says acid attacks are on the rise in India. “We think that acid attacks happen more in rural areas where people are not educated,” she said, explaining that a lot of the attacks take place in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.

A recent development the foundation has noted is the growing number of acid attacks on men, often triggered by disputes over money.

However, activists hope that the first death sentence for an acid attacker will now serve as a stark warning.

Published: September 10, 2016 04:00 AM


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