Acid Attacks in Egypt: Violence Undeterred by Light Punishment

Wednesday 14 March 201808:31 pm
Heba Hosni still remembers the day she wailed helplessly at a north Cairo court after hearing the judge pronouncing the verdict in November 2017: the man who has disfigured her face and body and caused her to lose her sight was sentenced to no more than ten years in prison. Attempts by family members and court officials to calm Hosni down were all in vain. Her screaming and hysterical crying left everyone in the hall dumbfounded; none of them could see the severe disfigurement that she was hiding behind the face veil she has put on since the vicious attack. Ashraf Abdel-Ghani splashed a caustic substance on Hosni after they broke off their engagement, leaving her blind and with permanent scarring. The day the verdict was returned, "I felt the same fire that ate my face in 2010, when the defendant poured a whole can of acid on me and ran off," she told Raseef22. Hosni had a son from a previous marriage; their world has been turned upside down since the acid attack. She used to work as a beauty specialist spending hours in front of the mirror. Now she is blind and disfigured, and needless to say unable to do this job anymore. She needs hundreds of thousands of Egyptian pounds worth of operations, whereas she cannot afford a tiny part of such medical bills. Meanwhile, her treatment cannot be state-sponsored because authorities said what she needs falls under plastic surgery. "I became helpless and now live off aid payments after I used to work and make a living for me and my son," Hosni said, wondering how the person who has harmed her so horrifically received only a ten-year jail term that can be shrunk to seven for good conduct. "That's not fair."

Not Legally Defined

Potential perpetrators are spurred to carry out such attacks when weapons, or harmful substances, are at their disposal while realizing there are loopholes that would alleviate their punishment. This is why acid attacks are common in Egypt: there are no specific sanctions for this crime, and thus the assailants would just spend a few years behind bars and then walk free. Threats of acid attacks are quite frequent in Egypt. The judge presiding over Hosni's case has sentenced the defendant to the longest jail term possible in accordance with the Egyptian penal code. Since the law does not specify cases of disfigurement using chemical substances, judges usually resort to articles related to battery in acid attack trials, with the full extent of injuries determining the sanction. Article 240 is for premeditated assault crimes that lead to an amputation or permanent damage. In such cases, the punishment would be from three to ten years in prison. Moreover, Article 241 is for assaults that do not result in permanent injuries yet cause bodily harm that takes more than 21 days to be medically treated. In such cases, sanctions range from one to two years in prisons. In Hosni's case, the judge referred to Article 240. "Since 2010 I'd waited for the security apparatus to arrest him. After hearing the verdict, I couldn't imagine he'll be back to his normal life years from now, while I will be spending the rest of my life disfigured," she said. "I think the law of the jungle is more just than this."


Neither the Egyptian Ministry of Health nor research bodies provide statistics about burn injuries and fatalities in Egypt. The only relevant figures were released by the World Health Organization: the victims who died of burns in Egypt have increased to 80,000, the third highest annual death toll in the country. However, there is no way to differentiate between burns caused by acid attacks or any other circumstances. Ahmed Adel, the head of the medical projects of Ahl Masr Foundation, said that acid attack victims comprise 2 percent of the patients with burn injuries that the foundation's hospital receives every year. Ahl Masr is the only institution in Egypt that provides free treatment for burn injuries. Nitric acid is the most dangerous substance used in these attacks because it spreads all over the body. Potassium nitrate, calcium oxide and certain types of fertilizers are also often used for the same purpose.

"Not My Woman, Not Anyone Else's"

"Since you won't be my woman... you won't be anyone else's". These were the last words Abdel-Ghani told Hosni the day he deliberately splashed acid on her face and body. "He was the last person I saw," she said. Some 80 percent of acid attack victims are women, according to Amal Fahmy, executive head of gender research center Tadwein, which last year led a campaign calling for a clear legal definition for caustic substances and criminalizing the use of any. "I believe the judge sympathized with Heba after he saw that she had lost her entire face... this was the maximum penalty imposed on an assailant among the cases we've documented during the campaign," Fahmy said. "In other rulings, judges handed [the defendants] only three-year terms, which is scary." Fahmy also said that state authorities did not pay attention to this kind of attacks, with no official studies or statistics available. It is therefore normal that no relevant law has been enacted thus far, she explained. Tadwein and other NGOs are preparing a draft law on violence that includes a definition of attacks that involve chemical substances as well as penalties for such assaults. The bill should be sent to the parliament once it has been ready. "We have tried to personally contact a number of MPs to get their support for these articles and the cause, but unfortunately we did not find any interest from any official sides," Fahmy said. "There is no any formal communication between civil society and the parliament." Toughening laws and increasing punishments is the only solution to deter acid attacks, according to Mai Gamal, a lawyer and researcher at Tadwein. She cited Bangladesh, where there was a substantial rise in acid attacks that was stemmed only when legislative authorities increased the crime's penalty to 50 years in jail irrespective of the extent of the resulted injuries. The move, Gamal said, saw the number of cases sharply drop. In one of the latest acid attacks reported by Egyptian media, a woman died after succumbing to injuries all across her body. According to a BBC report in 2013, 30 percent of acid attack victims are under the age of 18.

No Mirror Reflection

Hosni cannot see her disfigured body and face in the mirror, she is only capable of touching her permanent scars. She tries every day to picture how her son who has already turned 13 looks like. Hosni says she will never feel that justice is served until penalties for acid attacks are increased. "Or, the judges give the perpetrators a taste of their own medicine," she concluded.
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