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Pakistan's acid attack victims pin hope on new laws

Naziran Bibi knows exactly what she would consider apt justice for the person who hurled acid in her face, burnt out her eyes, disfigured her beyond recognition and destroyed her life.
By HT Correspondent | AFP, Islamabad
UPDATED ON JAN 04, 2010 09:21 AM IST

Naziran Bibi knows exactly what she would consider apt justice for the person who hurled acid in her face, burnt out her eyes, disfigured her beyond recognition and destroyed her life.

An eye for an eye, she tells AFP, her rage palatable in her small rooms at a charity's office in Pakistan's capital, her children scrambling over her as she gropes for a sewing box and twists thread round her fingers.

"If someone burns a face with acid, his face should also be burnt with acid. If someone blinds someone's eyes, his eyes should also be blinded," says Bibi.

"Yes, I want it done... my life is over now."

Bibi is locked in a complicated legal tussle over the attack and is fighting for custody of her young children, while learning how to live without sight and struggling with surgeries to rebuild her ruined face.

She is only 23 years old, but with no upper lip, a barely reconstructed nose, scar tissue where her right eye should be and a raw red socket where her left eye once was, her youth is impossible to discern.

Married off against her will as a second wife to her brother-in-law after her husband died, Bibi says she was treated abysmally. Then one night last year, someone poured acid over her as she slept, causing horrendous burns.

Confused, in pain and fearing for the safety of her two daughters, she was coerced by her husband into blaming a man she believes was innocent, and is now trying to retract her initial statement.

Bibi thinks her husband was responsible, but he remains free.

"I was in a terrible condition. I had psychological problems. I was not normal mentally... I simply want punishment for him. I want to throw acid on him. Not only on him, but on everybody who throws acid on others," she said.

The uneducated woman from Pakistan's cotton belt in rural Punjab province may want brutal justice, but activists are pressing for a change in the law to help prevent such attacks.

Thanks to a struggle in the highest court in the land by another acid attack victim -- Naila Farhat -- campaigners are hopeful that this devastating form of violence can be curtailed.

Pakistan is a conservative Muslim country, where women -- especially in poor, rural areas -- can be treated like commodities with little protection from the police and under pressure not to disgrace their families.

"Their families will say 'it's the wrong thing to go to the courts, what will society think about you?'," said Sana Masood, the legal coordinator with Pakistan's Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF).

The nation remains without a domestic violence law. It has been drafted, but lawmakers say it is still under debate as a senator from a hardline Islamic party raised objections and sent the bill back to parliament.

Acid attacks are rising, with ASF recording 48 cases in 2009 and Masood says countless more probably go unreported because of social stigma.

That is up from about 30 cases in 2007, a rise Masood says could be blamed on increased stress in people's lives as inflation soars.

Farhat was just 13 years old when a man threw acid in her face in 2003 because her parents refused to let him marry their child.

The attacker was sentenced to 12 years in prison and ordered to pay 1.2 million rupees (14,250 dollars) in damages, but on appeal a high court reduced the damages and said the man could go free once the money was paid.

Enraged, Farhat and ASF went to the Supreme Court -- the first acid attack case to be taken to the highest court -- where judges overturned the high court ruling within minutes.

Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry took a personal interest in the case, and recommended that the government pass new legislation to control the sale of acid and increase punishment for acid attacks.

Masood says industrial-strength acid used in cotton processing can be bought by anyone for just a few dollars.

"Because of its easy accessibility to the general public, for very stupid domestic issues they will just throw acid on each other," she said. "It does not only destroy a person's face but it destroys a person's life."

Also key would be the introduction of a law requiring the attacker to pay for their victim's painful and expensive treatment and counselling.

ASF has been pushing for such laws for years, but now hopes a bill will be tabled in parliament this month.

"They should, with relevant amendments, pass it unanimously and we don't expect the government to unnecessarily delay the process or create any blocks," said parliamentarian Marvi Memon, acknowledging the process could take months.

Without Farhat, these steps may never have been made, and she remains dedicated to helping other victims, coaching Bibi through her treatments and helping her come to terms with her future.

"I encourage other acid attack victims and tell them that they should continue fighting for their rights and should not hesitate to come out of their homes, they should come forward," Farhat told AFP.

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