Acid attacks leave more than physical scars — and they're on the rise in Britain

Samir Hussain was the victim of an acid attack after coming out of a movie theatre near London, England in 2015. (Stéphane Grasso/CBC)

​A recent wave of acid attacks in London has alarmed Britons and drawn new attention to a crime once thought to be the exclusive domain of street gangs.  

The U.K. has seen a dramatic increase in acid and noxious substance attacks over the past decade, with an increase of 30 per cent from 2015 to 2016 alone, according to London-based Acid Survivors Trust International (ASTI). London's Metropolitan Police say the number of recorded attacks in the capital rose 74 per cent over the same period, from 261 to 454.

On Saturday, police charged a 16-year-old boy with 15 offences in connection with a series of five attacks in a 90-minute spree last Thursday that left at least one victim, a man in his 20s, with life-changing injuries. 

Experts say that more and more, the targets are unrelated to gang violence.

"A lot of people work within that gang context and want to believe that that is the whole picture, but it isn't," said Dr. Loretta Trickett, professor of criminal law and criminology at Nottingham Trent University. "What we're seeing is a lot of people that have a grudge against somebody will go out armed with the acid."

In December 2014, Andreas Christopheros opened the front door to his home in Cornwall, in southwest England, to a man who said, "This is for you, mate," and threw sulphuric acid in his face.

His attacker, David Phillips, wasn't a gang member. He didn't even know Christopheros. It was a case of mistaken identity — he wrongly believed Christopheros had sexually assaulted someone he knew.

Phillips was convicted of grievous bodily harm and got a life sentence with a minimum of eight years. He successfully appealed and will get out in five.

'There's no legislation'

Acid recently regained popularity as a weapon in the armoury of modern urban street gangs because it's cheap, easy to get and comes with few legal consequences. 

"If you get caught with a knife [or] if you get caught with a gun, there's a sentence. If you get caught with ammonia or acid in a container, there's no sentence for it, there's no legislation," said Sheldon Thomas, co-founder of the London-based non-profit Gangsline and a former gang member himself.

"They don't want to go to jail for murder, so they know that the next best thing is to use that [acid] and disfigure them and they'll remember that."

Illegal possession of guns and knives can carry a prison sentences of four to five years in the U.K., but no legislation exists to control the sale or possession of corrosive substances. Corrosive substances are available for sale online or in hardware stores in various commercially available forms such as ammonia or drain cleaner. A litre of 96 per cent sulphuric acid can be bought for the equivalent of about $13 Cdn without ID.

It's also easy to conceal in a small bottle or vial that can be overlooked during police searches.

Typically, perpetrators carry a seemingly innocuous bottle as they approach victims and spray or splash the acid on them, which can burn the flesh off their faces and bodies, permanently disfigure them and leave them in excruciating pain.

Deaths are rare, with only three fatalities out of 1,805 attacks carried out between 2010 and 2016, but the long-term psychological trauma and physical damage to victims is immeasurable.

'It's more than just revenge. It's more than just hatred. It's an opportunity to mark somebody for life, to disfigure them, to humiliate them.'

- Dr. Simon Harding

"It's more than just revenge. It's more than just hatred. It's an opportunity to mark somebody for life, to disfigure them, to humiliate them, to seek an advantage of power over them which will last forever," said Dr. Simon Harding, senior lecturer in criminology at Middlesex University in north London.

'You can feel your face caving in'

Acid attacks don't just maim, they also intimidate, and residual fear and the threat of reprisals has silenced a large number of witnesses. Three-quarters of cases in which the police are involved fail to reach a conclusion, according to statistics released by the police.

As attacks are increasingly — and sensationally — reported in the British media, acid is becoming a weapon of first resort in interpersonal conflicts, Harding says.

Spate of acid attacks injures several Londoners

In August 2015, Samir Hussain and a friend left a late-night screening of Straight Outta Compton at a movie theatre in Crawley, about 50 kilometres south of London, when two men assaulted them in the parking lot and threw drain cleaner in Samir's face.

As the attacker threw acid at his face, Samir shielded his eyes with his right arm, most likely saving his eyesight in the process. He still suffered severe burns on his face, head, neck and arms. (Submitted by Samir Hussain)

"As soon as it hit me, my split-second thought was that this was not water, because it felt a lot heavier," Hussain said. "It's quite hard to describe, but you can feel your face caving in and sort of melting away."

Michael Macpherson was convicted in the attack and sentenced to eight years' imprisonment. In this case, too, the charge was grievous bodily harm, as there is no charge specific to acid attacks. If the attack had been carried out with a knife, Macpherson would have been tried for attempted murder, which carries a sentence of up to 25 years in prison.

U.K. government considering changes

Trickett says the current absence of legislation is untenable. "It's calculated to do maximum damage, and it's premeditated in a very, very high form," she said. "Because of that, and because of the absolute damage and devastation that it causes to victims … the sentencing has to be very severe."

In countries where there are laws controlling the sale of acid and stiff penalties for its misuse, the number of acid attacks has declined, ASTI says. In Pakistan and Bangladesh, numbers have effectively more than halved in the past decade.

U.K. Home Secretary Amber Rudd said Sunday the government is considering increasing sentences for acid attacks. Rudd wrote in the Sunday Times newspaper that those who use noxious liquids as a weapon should "feel the full force of the law."

Samir Hussain shows a family portrait from before the attack. (Stéphane Grasso/CBC)

Jaf Shah, executive director of ASTI, said he has proposed several measures to the U.K. Home Office, such as an age restriction on purchases, a licensing system and a ban on cash sales so that every purchase would have to be made through a credit or debit card.

Ultimately, though, Shah believes the best way to prevent attacks is to understand the motives behind them.

"We know that the majority of perpetrators of these attacks are men, and specifically young men," he said. "Is it an issue about masculinity, where young boys and men are learning and copying their behaviours from their peers or their brothers or their fathers?

"Rather than just thinking about punishment, we need to think about the educational aspects and challenge some of these notions, these ideas about masculinity and violence."

With files from Reuters, The Associated Press

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