Latin America & Caribbean

Colombia introduces harsher sentences for acid attacks

Natalia Ponce De Leon gives a news conference during the launching of her book ' Rebirth of Natalia Ponce de Leon' in Bogota on 16 April 2015. Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Natalia Ponce wears a mask to protect her face which was severely burned in an acid attack

The Colombian Senate has passed a law which will impose harsher sentences on people who have committed acid attacks.

Anyone convicted of harming another with a chemical agent will now serve between 12 and 50 years in prison.

In Colombia, an estimated 100 people per year are attacked with acid, but so far only a handful of perpetrators have been convicted.

The law is named after Natalia Ponce, who was severely disfigured by an acid attack in March 2014.

Under the new law, those who "use any type of chemical agent" to hurt someone will be jailed for between 12 and 20 years, but the sentence can increase to up to 50 years in prison for those who permanently disfigure their victim.

Acid attacks so far fell under the category of physical aggression, such as beatings, and sentences were relatively short.

Tireless campaigner

Ms Ponce thanked the legislature for pushing the law through.

"Thanks to Congress for listening to me and understanding that these types of attacks are not just a simple attempt to personally injure someone but to end our lives", Ms Ponce said.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Ms Ponce says the attack destroyed her life and those of her family but that she has been "reborn" since

Ms Ponce had acid thrown into her face by a neighbour causing burns to almost a third of her body.

The neighbour, Jonathan Vega, had become obsessed with her and plotted the attack after she had rejected his advances.

He was arrested shortly after the attack. His trial is currently held up by his refusal to undergo a psychiatric exam.

Ms Ponce has become a campaigner for the rights of acid attack victims.

She has told her story to journalist Martha Soto who has published a book about Ms Ponce's ordeal entitled The Rebirth of Natalia Ponce.

Ms Ponce has had 20 operations and is scheduled to have more to reconstruct the parts of her body which were burned by sulphuric acid.

According to Ms Ponce, the number of acid attacks in Colombia per inhabitant is higher than in countries such as Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan.

Victims' groups say the vast majority of victims are female.

The attackers can be male or female and often act out of envy, jealousy or to revenge a perceived wrongdoing, they say.

The new law will come into force as soon as it is signed by President Juan Manuel Santos, who has already expressed his support.

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