A leading US-based rights group has said acid attack survivors in Cambodia are unlawfully denied free medical care and face pressure to accept inadequate settlements.
In a report released on Tuesday, titled "What Hell Feels Like: Acid Violence in Cambodia", Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the government should enforce laws the require legal, social and medical support services are provided to survivors.
“The Cambodian government took an important step with the Acid Law by making clear promises to survivors of acid violence,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at HRW. “The government’s failure to enforce the law outside Phnom Penh, hold attackers accountable, or ensure adequate treatment and compensation for victims has left those promises unfulfilled – with consequences that last a lifetime.”
But Phay Siphan, a government spokesman, defended the government’s commitment to addressing the issue.
“We have seen cases in which .. sometimes the plaintiffs do no cooperate with the prosecutor, which stalls the case halfway,” he said. “However, we are fighting against the use of acid as a weapon,” he claimed.
In the report, HRW said it spoke to 17 survivors in Phnom Penh and Kampong Cham, as well as their relatives, lawyers, and experts.
It highlighted a number of cases, such as Sun Sokney, who was attacked by her husband at a crowded market in February 2016. She told investigators that until she convinced the crowd that she was his wife, they cheered on her attacker and encouraged him to escape the police.
The report added that Cambodia’s Acid Law requires state hospitals to provide free medical care for survivors, but none interviewed by the organization had received such care.
Rather, they described being denied treatment until they could provide out-of-pocket payments or could show proof that they could pay. Even the staff at the largest public hospital in Cambodia – the only one with a dedicated burn unit – were unaware that the law requires free treatment.
Most of the acid survivors interviewed for the report had not obtained justice. Several said government officials pressured them to accept an inadequate settlement out of court. Of the handful of cases that made it to court, few have resulted in a conviction, and fewer still in the people convicted serving out their sentence, the group said.
The Cambodian government should prohibit informal financial settlements in criminal cases and make the obstruction of justice a criminal offense, it added. Such obstruction should include improperly intervening with police, officials, judges, or prosecutors, while Cambodia’s Anti-Corruption Unit and Ministry of Justice should urgently finalize the long-promised draft victim and witness protection laws, HRW concluded.
“The Cambodian government should explicitly communicate to all public hospitals the legal requirement to provide free treatment to victims of acid violence, and the government’s obligation to reimburse hospitals for the costs,” Adams said. “The government should update the regulations on opioid analgesics to ensure that opioid pain medications are both available and accessible for those who need them, to spare acid attack survivors a life of excruciating pain.”