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No justice for Bangladesh acid attack victims

The crime of acid-throwing carries the death penalty but few perpetrators are brought to justice.
Last modified: 2 Sep 2012 11:43

Six-year old Durjoy was just a baby when his aunt poured sulfurique acid down his throat.  His tongue, teeth, mouth and throat melted instantly. Burnt skin hung loose on his neck.  The only male heir to a poor Hindu family, his aunt saw the child as a threat to her inheritance, and so she tried to kill him. 

My colleague Tony Birtley met him shortly after the incident. Durjoy could hardly breath and needed urgent plastic surgery. Thanks to modern medical techniques, he miraculously survived the attack. Tony travelled back to Bangladesh in 2008 to see Durjoy at the Acid Survivors Foundation, where he was a permanent resident.  He was greeted by a cheeky little boy in high spirits.

A year later, on a visit to the foundation, I found Durjoy lying in a bed, accompanied by his mother, a feeding tube coming out of his stomach. He was having lunch; a nurse was injecting a blended mix of egg rice, lentil and fish into his belly. I asked his mother if the police had ever arrested Durjoy’s aunt. She sighed, telling me that the police were paid off by Durjoy’s aunt’s family, and that she had not been arrested. 

In the room next door were dozens of women, all disfigured in their own ways. All had suffered from acid attacks. Some were crying; other stared in silence. One by one I asked them if they had received any justice. “No”, was there response, unanimously. I spoke to the lawyer of the survivors foundation and took note of each case. I then went to the home ministry, where we asked for an interview.  Our request was turned down, but we persisted. After weeks of constant calling, I got an appointment with an assistant secretary at the ministry.  

Upon my arrival, I was greeted by a bot-bellied middle-aged man with a weak handshake. As I explained the cases of Durjoy and the women, he pulled a pocket mirror out of his office drawer and used it to meticulously comb his moustache. Annoyed, he interrupted and asked, “what do you want me to do about it?” I told him I wanted him to do his job and arrest the perpetrators of these crimes. His answer was, “I don’t have time for this nonsense. I am too busy”, and then asked me to leave his office.

I was shocked. This was my first year in Bangladesh and I had only heard and read about corruption and inefficiency, I was given a glimpse of what average Bangladeshis have to endure every day. Durjoy’s mother and the women at the foundation were not surprise when I told them about my meeting.

This all took place in 2009. Three years on, Durjoy and the others have still not received justice. The crime of acid-throwing now carries the death penalty. 

Monira Rahman of the Acid Survivors Foundation is a campaigner and activist who says that despite the lack of justice, the number of these attacks have gone down.

“In Bangladesh it’s mostly young women who refuse the advances of men that become the victims of acid attacks”, she says, explaining that the “men are trying to shame the women and take their beauty away”.

This ugly and cowardly crime has crossed borders too. Last month, a bottle of acid was thrown at students in a Muslim school in the suburbs of Chicago during the holy month of Ramadan. In Columbia, the number of reported attacks has gone up. Twenty-two attacks have been reported this year alone. In Bangladesh 84 acid attacks were reported last year. By and large the crime continues to go unpunished.

The doors of the Acid Survivors Foundation are carefully guarded. For Durjoy, his mother, and the other victims we met, the Foundation continues to be the only place where they feel safe.

Nicolas Haque's report is part of Al Jazeera's series What Happened Next?