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Acid attacks in India: disfigured model and the first death sentence

These two episodes sparked off heated public debate conveying different positions, highlighting the urgent need to acknowledge a form of violence perpetrated against at least 1500 women in the world, especially in India

Reshma Qureshi, 19, is an Indian women disfigured with acid by her brother-in-law for having defended her sister. Last Friday she walked the runway at a fashion show in New York. Although she was blinded in one eye and her face is now disfigured, she had the courage to confront prejudices to raise awareness on an upsetting phenomenon: according to the British organization Acid Survivors Trust International 1500 women are victim of acid attacks every year, most of whom in India. Italy is no exception: the cases were brought to light in news stories over the past years. In the same week a special Women’s court of the Supreme Court in Mumbai sentenced to death a man on charges of throwing two litres of sulphuric acid on Preethi Rathi, a 23-year-old nurse who had turned down the man’s marriage proposal. She died a month later in the hospital as a result of the burn injuries. Her father, a devastated old man, said he is satisfied with the exemplary punishment. The death sentence sparked off a heated debate across Indian society, marked by differing opinions. However, it would pave the way to the long overdue acknowledgement of the gravity of such attacks.

It is estimated that there may be between 500 and 1000 cases in India alone. There are as many as 500 recorded attacks in 2015 (1000 according to other sources), signalling an increase compared to the previous year. However, the real figure is likely to be far higher. Women living in rural areas, or belonging to lower castes, often don’t report the attacks because they are unaware of their rights, or because they are afraid. Most victims were attacked for having rejected sexual advances or marriage proposals. It could be for this reason, or in order to serve as a deterrent, that the Special Court for Crimes Against Women in Mumbai imposed a severe sentence on Ankur Panwar, 25, who could still lodge an appeal. Preethi’s death shocked India’s public opinion to the extent that the Supreme Court immediately ruled to restrict the conditions of sale of acid in shops and open markets. From now on customers are requested to present a document upon purchase, while sale is forbidden to minors. For activists these measures are not enough and they demand a total ban on the sale of acid along with more severe penalties.

A delicate issue. Indian Catholics, along with several human rights organizations aiming to combat violence against women and death penalty alike, seem to find it difficult to evaluate the Court ruling. Many of them have remained silent. Father Nigel Barrett, spokesperson for the archdiocese of Mumbai (Bombay), declared: “While acknowledging the severity of crime and with utmost respect for the judiciary, we at Catholic Church have always taken the moral stand that it is against capital punishment. Life is a gift from God and must be respected always.” Echoing the same views, Charity Sister Magdalene D’Silva pointed out that “we are living the Year of Mercy.” She added that the attacker should be given “a chance for repentance and rehabilitation.” Opposite views were voiced by Sangeeta Manore Bhure, women rights activist. She said: “criminals that commit crimes such as Panwar deserve such punishment”, if not, “people won’t understand.” Death-by-hanging sentences are rare in India, although, according to Amnesty International, at the end of 2015 as many as 320 convicts were on death row In India. Three people have been hanged in the years 2004-2014. The last death sentence was executed in 2012  (figures released by “Hands Off Cain.”) Although India voted against a 2013 UN resolution banning death penalty, death sentences are often commuted to life imprisonment or annulled. Last year the Law Commission of India recommended the abolition of death penalty except in terrorism related offences and cases of war against the Country. In 2014 322,000 women were victims of acts of violence, 37 000 of whom were victims of rape (figures: Amnesty International).

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