Acid attacks and Nepal’s dilapidated justice system: The agony of Muskan Khatun

Reporters Club Exclusive: 14-year-old Muskan Khatun is surrounded by her family in Kirtipur hospital in Kathmandu. An acid attack survivor the atrociousness of the heinous act has made her even stronger and determined to face the coming challenges of life. Visitors from various walks of life have come to provide support and lift her spirits, but it is inadequate with the horrors the entire family is going through following the attack. The entire incident has not only brought to light the vile and despicable human consciousness and psyche, but it has also exposed the impuissance of law enforcement along with a dilapidated justice system.

(Muskan Khatun, Jenny Khadka and Late Samjhana Das courtesy BVS-Nepal)

These incidents have repeated several times in the past, and yet each time we as a society, and our inability to provide countermeasures has led to increasing victims, with Muskan being the latest. Prior to this Samjhana Kumari Das lost her life after being attacked in Rautahat last year. Similarly, other cases of acid attacks against victims Jenny Khadka, Sangita Magar, Seema Basnet and Brindabasani Kansakar have repeatedly exposed our inability to strengthen our justice system, regulate the availability of lethal and life-endangering substances like acid, and changing the minds of youth toward civility. We collectively, miserably, failed.

Most of these cases are a result of harassment that was taken lightly, abuse toward women and defiling individual dignity. None of the cases as reported are even closely related to a “jilted lover”, it is a patriarchal conditioning and a feeble psyche of the absolute demented mentality of the assailants. In the case of Muskan, the entire ambit of events that unfolded was anything but regular, as she was also a victim of harassment.

On 6th September on her way to school Shamsad Alam and Majid Miya Hajam eve teasers with a history of harassment toward women in the area of Chhapkaiyan-3 Birgunj pre-planned the atrocity toward Muskan. Her father Rasul Ansari he says “those two were caught harassing other females too in the area and were once severely beaten by other locals, they were bothering Muskan too. I had intervened and asked them to stop harassing my daughter”.

(Muskan Khatun in her initial stages of recovery following the attack)

“They were constantly harassing me, and I never paid any attention to them,” says Muskan, who is a stellar academician with an extremely competitive track record with an unhindered passion toward science. On that fateful day Muskan who was on her way to school walking in Ganesh Man Chowk, Shamshad and Majid the assailants were ready with a rock on one hand and a mug filled with concentrated acid on the other. They stopped her and asked her to drink water offering Muskan the mug that was filled with concentrated acid. Her refusal got them agitated and they hurled the acid all over Muskan leaving her with life-damaging burns.

The first impact was on her ears (right ear has been completely damaged) hands, face, neck, and chest. This incident which is being seen as just an acid attack was actually an attempt to murder which was pre-planned by the duo. With no recourse for effective treatment in the area after being admitted to the Narayani district hospital, Muskan was referred to the Kirtipur Hospital in the capital. The parents were helpless and had to cough up 11500 Nepalese Rupees (NRs) to transfer their daughter who was battling for life. Neither the local nor the provincial government provided any help.

Muskan has been recovering since then, and she is self-determined and hopeful that she will continue pursuing her education, although she will be in the hospital for further surgeries and treatment. The entire incident was closely monitored and followed up by social activist Ujjwal Thapa a resident of Kathmandu.

(Muskan’s Family, Rasul Ansari, Shenaz Khatun Ansari, Shabana Khatun, and Sania Khatun along with social activist Ujjwal Thapa and journalist Birat Krishna Thapa from Reporters Club Nepal) 

Ujjwal Thapa has been actively helping with outreach, not only for this particular case of Muskan but to prior acid attack victims as well. “There needs to be a certain severity in punishing the perpetrators, we have weak laws which only allow for a maximum prison sentence of 5 years”.

Thapa who is a social activist is involved in facilitating and providing for compensation, encouragement, and outreach for acid attack victims. A father of 3 daughters he feels the necessity of imperativeness regarding such cases which is an impediment toward our society. “It is a dastardly act and their needs to be stringent laws,” he said.

“It is unfortunate that we have to publicize such incident which is spewing further hate and providing unwarranted ideas, but acid attacks is one of the most violent crimes with no legal recourse. The victims are left waiting, cases take a lot of time in court and with the current nature of provisions for justice the assailant is left to go even before the trial begins”. Thapa opined that the government needed sterner actions, like a minimum of life imprisonment for those involved, regulating and monitoring the sale of lethal substances like acid, and a fast track court that will expedite cases.

Current provisions are not tuned toward justice, the point of departure, where the assailant is given a sentence based on the severity of the burns. “We see Muskan smiling today as it is, very few people have seen her the day she was attacked, and how do we precisely base a judgment based on severity,” said Thapa.

(Muskan talking to another survivor of an acid attack Brindabasini Kansakar) 

With the reassurance of hope and an undeterred spirit, Muskan says “I hope no other girl has to go through this, and I wish my assailants get maximum punishment”. Muskan talks to Brindabasini another acid attack survivor in a video call. Both supporting and providing strength to one another. The long days at the hospital can leave anyone hoping that times will change for the better.

A court order yesterday under a single bench of Justice Prakash Kharel, finding the assailants underage were sent to children correctional home rather than giving them a jail sentence. The judgment came from the district court of Parsa where they were unable to find evidence regarding the age of the assailants to be tried as adults, while their given ages of Majid Miya Hajam were 14 years and Shamshad Alam 12 years.

Muskan Khatun became a victim of not only harassment and eve-teasing, but also an unfathomable acid attack. Educated and brought up in Kathmandu her family had moved back to the village post the earthquake. Outspoken, diligent and fearless, she loves to read and is inclined towards her education in the field of medicine. “I am currently reading Malala, I hope to read more and continue my studies”.

It is debatable that such a heinous crime went unpunished with another loophole within our legal and justice system. Our law enforcement was unable to act in time that could have avoided such an incident. The perpetrators will be out. In this case alike the previous cases it has exposed the inherent weakness of our legal system where the victim is damaged for life, and there is no remorse or repentance shown by the assailants.

(Compiled and written by Birat Krishna Thapa for Reporters Club Nepal)