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Tuesday, March 1, 2016
Horrors of an acid attack last a lifetime – and cases have doubled in a decade
Imagine looking in the mirror and not recognising your own face. And having to come to terms with the awful realisation that you’ve been stripped of your identity by the violent hatred of another person.
A sudden cold splash, then searing pain as burning skin begins to tear from your body.
Scarred for life – both physically and mentally – these are the horrors of an acid attack .
A life changed for ever.
The sentence for victims, such as TV presenter Katie Piper , is far greater than any that can be handed down to their attackers by a court.
These brutal attacks – originally associated with south Asia – have more than doubled in the UK over the past decade.
And now figures show last year more than 100 victims were hospitalised. But just why are such barbaric acts on the rise – especially as violent crime in general has been steadily dropping in recent years?
Ian Stephen, the forensic consultant psychologist who inspired hit crime series Cracker, was involved in one of the very first attacks here 25 years ago.
He says: “Throwing acid into the face of a former partner who has rejected you, or a woman you have pursued who has scorned your advances, is a very effective form of punishment for the sick mind.”
One of the most high-profile cases is that of Katie Piper, 32, who was blinded in one eye and left with serious facial scars following a sulphuric acid attack in March 2008.
The shocking crime was arranged by her ex-boyfriend Danny Lynch and carried out by an accomplice, Stefan Sylvestre. Both are serving life sentences.
Experts have related acid attacks to gang violence, cultural honour crimes and acts of jealousy from spurned ex-partners or rejected stalkers . Law enforcement agencies are at a loss at how to stamp them out.
Mr Stephen, 76, still conducts risk assessments and expert reports for the courts, giving him a thorough understanding of the violent criminal mind.
He says throwing acid into someone’s face is a type of destruction that goes beyond most other physical attacks. Yet the substances used to carry out such terrible crimes remain readily available.
He says: “Household items, like caustic soda and drain cleaner, can be used to burn people, and police have conceded that legislating to cover all relevant items would be impossible.”
The motivation of an acid attacker is not to kill, but to maim, terrorise and control.
The first such case Mr Stephen encountered was in February 1991, when model Louise Duddy, from Edinburgh, was blinded and disfigured by a hit man, Kelvin Greenhalghse, hired by her ex-husband, Gordon Modiak.
Mr Stephen says: “It was a classic case of the husband saying, ‘If I can’t have you, no one else will’.” Both men were later sentenced to 20 years.
Many of the acid attacks that make the headlines involve a jealous former lover.
In December 2014, Mohammed Rafiq, 80, from Smethwick, near Birmingham, was jailed for 18 years for arranging to have acid thrown in the face of his former lover Vikki Horsmann, then 19.
But not all attacks fit the same pattern. Naomi Oni, 23, from East London, was disfigured in 2012 by acid thrown by former friend, Mary Konye, 21.
A court heard the attack was motivated by Konye’s jealousy of Naomi’s beauty. She was later jailed for 12 years.
Mr Stephen says of such assaults: “It’s a way of destroying someone’s sense of self without actually killing them.”
Voice of a victim
One woman who knows only too well the devastating effects of an acid attack is 24-year-old Azara.
Even more shocking is the fact that it was carried out by her own brother after she threatened to report him to the authorities for sexually abusing her as a child.
He turned up at her home with a bottle full of sulphuric acid which he poured on to her chest and neck.
“Immediately I heard a hissing sound,” says Azara (not her real name). “I realised it was acid. I was howling and crying, trying to pull my clothes away but terrified I might pull away strips of my own skin.”
Her brother said if she told anyone he was responsible, he would kill her.
Two years on Azara, a member of Glasgow’s Asian community, still bears the scars of that dreadful attack. She was treated at hospital at the time but refused to report her brother to the police.
The only people she confided in were her sister and two closest friends.
She managed to hide her injuries from everyone else.
“I’d love to have made him pay, but that would destroy my family, his wife, their children,” says Azora.
“I believe I’m considered damaged goods. I hate what he did to me, and I blame it for ruining my chance of having a family.”