Years after acid attack horror, suicide stirs Pakistan

Declan Walsh reports: Fakhra Younas went under the surgeon’s knife 38 times, hoping to repair the gruesome damage inflicted by a vengeful Pakistani man who had doused her face in acid a decade earlier, virtually melting her mouth, nose and ears.

The painful medical marathon took place in Rome, a distant city that offered Ms. Younas refuge, the generosity of strangers and a modicum of healing. She found an outlet in writing a memoir and making fearless public appearances.

But while Italian doctors worked on her facial scars, some wounds refused to close.

On March 17, after a decade of pining for Pakistan, a country she loved even though its justice system had failed her terribly, Ms. Younas climbed to the sixth-floor balcony of her apartment building in the southern suburbs of Rome and jumped. She was reported to be 33 years old.

News of her death filtered back to her home city, Karachi. And by the time her coffin arrived for burial, a storm of outrage had been whipped up — one framed by a glittering Hollywood success.

On Feb. 28, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, a Karachi filmmaker, won Pakistan’s first Academy Award, for “Saving Face,” a documentary that focuses in gritty detail on victims of acid violence like Ms. Younas. Despite the film’s disturbing topic, the Oscar gave Pakistanis a welcome shot of national pride, while focusing attention on a social ill.

Acid is the preferred weapon of vindictive men against women accused of disloyalty or disobedience. Common in several Asian countries, acid attacks in Pakistan grew sharply in number in 2011, to 150 from 65 in 2010, although some advocacy workers said the increase stemmed largely from better reporting.

The death of Ms. Younas galvanized the Pakistani news media. In Parliament, lawmakers vowed to take action, while one political leader called for a criminal investigation into the case to be reopened. But legal experts were skeptical that would happen, because the man Ms. Younas long accused of the attack — her ex-husband, Bilal Khar — was acquitted at trial nine years ago.

Unlike most men accused in acid attacks, Mr. Khar comes from a wealthy, powerful background. His family owns vast swaths of rich farmland in Punjab Province; his father, Mustafa, is a former provincial governor; his first cousin Hina Rabbani Khar is Pakistan’s foreign minister. In recent weeks, Mr. Khar appeared on television several times to defend his reputation. “My hands are clean,” he said during one broadcast.

The appearances won him little public sympathy, with critics saying that the case exemplified how Pakistan’s rich frequently evade justice. Yet there was a ringing contrast between the howls of condemnation and the virtual silence that greeted Ms. Younas after she was attacked a decade ago. And it raised a question: When this clamor has receded, will Pakistan’s next acid victims stand a better chance of obtaining justice? [Continue reading…]

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