As Britain cracks down on weapons, criminals turn to acid attacks
LONDON — Jabed Hussain said he was really lucky. The delivery driver was one of the latest victims in an alarming surge of acid attacks in Britain.
He was still trembling when he said, “But they didn’t get my face. They didn’t ruin me.”
Attacks by people throwing acid at their victims has tripled in the last three years in Britain, stoking fears that almost anyone can be the victim — from a moped rider to the city banker or politician.
The alarming rise comes amid a clampdown on weapons and fears of a frightening new crime fad involving teenage motorbike thieves using corrosive substances, in part because they are relatively easy to obtain.
Hussain, 30, was riding his three-wheel scooter, stopped at a traffic light in East London earlier this month, when he felt what he thought was water, doused on him by a pair of faceless teenagers in wraparound helmets, mounted on a motorbike beside him.
“Then I started to feel the burning, and I knew instantly what it was,” Hussain said. “Because this is what we are all fearing.”
He ripped off his helmet and began clawing at his clothing. His assailants stole his bike and sped away, as Hussain begged passing motorists for help.
“I must have looked like a mad man,” Hussain said. “Nobody would roll down their windows for me.”
The United Kingdom is a safe country, but the spike in acid attacks is clearly unnerving — when a possible assailant is anyone with bottle of bleach, ammonia or drain cleaner.
“Because it is not like seeing a gun or a knife,” said Rachel Kearton, Assistant Chief Constable of the Suffolk Police, the National Police Chief Council’s top investigator on corrosive attacks.
“Because the intent is to maim and disfigure,” Kearton said.
According to the London Metropolitan Police and regional police chiefs, there were more than 700 acid attacks last year, double the number in 2015.
Kearton told the Washington Post it appears likely that acid attack numbers will increase by another 50 percent this year.
Police chiefs say that there isn’t a single motive behind the attacks, but acknowledge that gangs and robberies seem to be playing a part. Some of the attackers are only teenagers — of those whose ages are known, 21 percent under under the age of 18. The most common corrosive liquids are bleach, ammonia and acid.
According to London’s City Hall, “many recent acid attacks are connected to violent and aggressive organized scooter theft.” In a recent statement, it said “this is particularly frightening for people who ride scooters in London.”
Scooter drivers have staged a number of protests to highlight their concerns about being doused with acid in attempted bike robberies.
Police, victims and the gang members agree — there is just something terrifying about being splashed with acid.
Late last year, a London business executive named Gina Miller took the British government to court to decide if it could trigger Brexit, Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, without parliamentary approval.
Since then, Miller said she’s been living in fear that someone will attack her.
“I have been getting threats of having acid thrown in my face for months and months now. When I see someone walk towards me on the street with a bottle of water or something, I just freak out,” she told Verdict magazine.
“My life has completely changed,” she said.
Ohid Ahmed, a councillor from Jabed Hussain’s East London neighborhood, said that while acid was certainly the latest weapon of choice for assailants, there was something deeper going on.
“If you want to steal a moped, you can steal a moped,” he said. The criminal can use a hammer, a knife or his fists, he said. “But throwing acid is a hate crime,” Ahmed said.
You are seeking to destroy your victim, he said.
Some places are taking extra precautions. Earlier this month, some court buildings began asking anyone entering a court with a water bottle — visitors, judges, lawyers — to take a “ sip test” to prove that their liquid isn’t acid.
Britain is “near the top, or the top of the pack globally,” when it comes to reported attacks, said Jaf Shah, executive director of Acid Survivors Trust International, a London-based non-profit. He said that other countries, including India, likely have far more attacks, but they remain unreported.
The U.K. is unusual in that so many of the attacks are against men. In many other countries, women and girls are disproportionately impacted with spurned men or jilted suitors dousing former wives or girlfriends in the hope of disfiguring them for life.
By contrast, Shah said, two thirds of the victims in the U.K. are men.
Campaigners say that the rise in attacks could be linked to a clampdown on weapons. In 2015, a “two strikes” rule was introduced so that those convicted of carrying a knife for the second time received a mandatory six-month prison sentence.
Shah said that for some gang members it’s possible that acid is becoming “the weapon of choice” because it’s now seen as a “safe crime to commit because you can’t be charged for carrying acid, only charged if police can prove intent.”
To be sure, the number of acid attacks in the U.K. is dwarfed by gun and knife crime statistics.
But the increase is still alarming and the British government is reviewing its current guidelines to see if police and prosecutors have the powers they need and if new restrictions will be placed on retailers who sell corrosive liquids.
“We have seen acid used in cases of gang violence, drug trafficking, domestic abuse and so-called honour-based violence,” the Home Secretary Amber Rudd wrote in the Sunday Times. “We can and will improve our response,” she wrote.
Stephen Timms, a lawmaker for the opposition Labour Party, has called on the government to introduce harsher punishment for the possession of corrosive liquids.
“It should be a criminal offense to carry acid around on the streets in the same way that it is already in the U.K. a criminal offense to carry a knife,” he said.
In Britain, it is illegal to carry a knife without a good reason.
Timms’ constituency in east London has some of the highest levels of acid attacks in the country. An attack in June on two Muslim cousins sparked panic in the local community, he said. Jameel Muhktar and Resham Khan were celebrating Khan’s 21st birthday in east London on the day their worlds turned upside down. They were stopped at traffic lights when a man knocked on their car window and hurled acid at them.
After that attack, Timms said, “people starting asking themselves, especially women, was it safe to walk down the street without someone throwing acid over you?”
Writing from her hospital bed, Khan has won many admirers on social media for chronicling the highs and lows of her recovery.
“My plans are in pieces; my pain is unbearable, and I write this letter in hospital whilst I patiently wait for the return of my face,” she wrote in one blog entry calling on lawmakers and retailers to make a number of changes.
“I can’t dwell on the past but what I can do is help build a better future, one without attacks like these,” she said.
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