London Acid Attacks: The rise in crimes involving corrosive substances

On July 17th 2017, a 16-year-old was charged with one count of wounding, and five counts of attempted grievous bodily harm, in relation to five acid attacks carried out over the course of 90 minutes in East London. These latest attacks come less than a month after Jameel Muhktar and Resham Khan had a corrosive substance thrown on them in what is now being treated as a hate crime. Police Chief Commissioner Cressida Dick called these violent crimes “barbaric”, and the government responded by promising to review the legislation surrounding acid attacks.

  • Last updated Feb 10, 2018 4:36:22 PM
  • By Becky Kells, Editor, AllAboutLaw
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Photo courtesy of Raymond Clarke Images

Legally speaking, this type of crime often remains under the radar. Of the 2078 acid attack crimes that were recorded between 2011 and 2016, only 414 of those resulted in charges being brought against the perpetrators. So while acid attacks are definitely happening, they’re not being brought to the courts.

The use of corrosive substances to cause injury to others has a complex history in the UK. As the industrial revolution took hold, vitriol appeared as a vital substance in textile industries, and became readily available to factory workers. This quickly led to a rise in malevolent use. The practice of throwing vitriol in jealousy-motivated attacks became so widespread that it was given a name – vitriolage.

Over 200 years since the first vitriol factory opened in Twickenham, acid attacks in the UK are on the rise – in 2016, there were 454 attacks across London, compared to 261 in 2015. There are now scores of people living with the physical and psychological effects of acid throwing in the UK. Katie Piper, who was attacked with sulphuric acid in 2008 in an attack arranged by an ex-boyfriend, has been extremely vocal about her gruelling recovery process. In an open letter released after the latest London attacks, she describes how she underwent over 250 operations and hours of psychological therapy to help her accept her “new face”, calling this aftermath a “life sentence”.

This “life sentence” is seldom shared by the perpetrators themselves. Acid attacks are often grouped under the legal umbrella term of Grievous Bodily Harm with Intent. Life sentences can be handed out for crimes of this nature, but perpetrators often receive much shorter custodial sentences. The maximum penalty for those caught in possession of acid is a four-year custodial sentence. Anyone over the age of 18 is able to purchase various corrosive substances – such as drain cleaner – on the high street. There is no record of who buys these substances, and from whom. This introduces a huge grey area around acid and its availability, compared to more strenuous regulations placed on other dangerous weapons such as knives and firearms.

Mike West of the Metropolitan Police has proposed a number of ways of differentiating between innocent and malevolent acid carriers. He suggested that acid carried in a different bottle to the original, such as a sports cap bottle, could increase the likelihood of the carrier being charged, as this shows intent to cause harm. He also hinted that certain substances could be subject to stricter regulations: “I am working in a smaller group with the Home Office to shape future legislation of certain products”. Any changes related to corrosive substances will have to carefully consider consumer needs, while providing prosecutors with a strong basis to bring charges against acid users.

Nazmin Akthar-Sheikh, Vice-Chair of Muslim Women’s Network UK (MWNUK) has proposed another way to regulate acid. A review of the Poisons Act (1972) could lead to sulphuric acid being moved from the “reportable substance” category to that of “regulated substance.” Under a change such as this, anyone wishing to buy sulphuric acid would need a licence and would have to provide photo ID. This is a far cry from the current availability of acid, and whilst the standard shopper may face more challenges when buying cleaning products, most would agree that this is a small price to pay to prevent harm.

Corrosive substances are available, and they are cheap – both have been instrumental factors in the evolution of acid attacks, and in recent years, corrosive substances have entered London gang culture. A Vice interview with an anonymous Stratford gang member shows just how easily acid throwing can slot into everyday life – an opposing gang member was seen shopping in Tesco with his girlfriend, the perpetrators carried the acid in a Lucozade bottle, and it was “splashed” in the face of the woman. The reasons offered by this particular gang member are a complex confusion of honour and violence. Currently, the law states that police who find a person carrying acid must obtain proof of intent to harm, and critics have suggested that this portrays acid throwing as a ‘safe crime’ for gang members.

There is little common ground to unify victims and perpetrators of acid attacks. In April, two people were partially blinded and 20 others hurt after a disagreement over drugs in East London club. In some cases – such as that of student Mary Konye, who threw acid on her friend Naomi Oni in 2014 – the motive is jealousy. Acid has also been used in discriminatory attacks; Jameel Muhktar describes the incident in which he and his cousin were severely burnt as a “hate crime”, which he feels is “to do with islamophobia”. Some criminology experts cite gender as the issue – acid is adopted by young men as a way to assert their masculinity, while acid is used against women as an attack on perceived beauty, and therefore femininity. The process of acquiring a corrosive substance and throwing it may seem minor, even everyday – but the long-term effects are uniquely devastating and debilitating. The wide range of motives makes acid attacks difficult to monitor, predict and prevent.

Meanwhile, the victims are left in a cycle of physical and psychological pain: Muhktar describes a sensation in which his skin feels like it is being “constantly ironed”. Typically, an acid attack victim will have to have skin graft surgery and wear a protective mask for extended periods of time. While acid attacks are notorious for altering external appearance, Piper has also spoken out about long-term internal problems – she has scar tissue in her throat because she swallowed acid, and has tubes in her nose to allow her to breathe through scars. It is these lifelong physical reminders that cause prolonged psychological issues for survivors; the crime is twofold in that it targets mental wellbeing through altering physical appearance.

Since her attack and recovery Piper has devoted her public work to ensuring that nobody else has to suffer injuries similar to her own. But acid attacks are evolving in nature, and as a result they are increasing in frequency in the UK. There have been suggestions to treat severely acidic substances with the same vigilance that the UK treats chemical weapons. Whatever the solution, there is no question that the sale of acidic substances needs to be reviewed.

The law on acid throwing needs to be more inclusive, with legislation providing extensive coverage of the types and extents of acid attacks, with regulated sentences. Life sentences are available for crimes involving acid – Katie Piper’s attacker was sentenced to life - but it is not mandatory for one to be handed down. Many are calling for this to be the next step in reforming the law.

Right now in 2017, acid throwing is a serious and life altering crime that can be carried out with relative ease. As the government reviews the way the legal system handles this horrific crime, we are left trying to understand the psychological motive for committing it in the first place. But there is no doubt that as long as the number of acid attacks increases, so too should our attempts to regulate and prosecute them.

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