Acid attack victim Andreas Christopheros in his home in Truro, south-west England, Britain, in July. UK officials have said it appears likely that acid attack numbers will increase by another 50 per cent this year. Image Credit: Reuters

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 past 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.

“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.”

According to the London Metropolitan Police and regional police chiefs, there were over 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 per cent this year.

Police chiefs say there isn’t a single motive behind the attacks, but acknowledge gangs and robberies seem to be playing a part. Some of the attackers are only teenagers — of those whose ages are known, 21 per cent under the age of 18. The most common corrosive liquids are bleach, ammonia and acid.

According to leaders in London’s City Hall, “many recent acid attacks are connected to violent and aggressive organised scooter theft.” In a recent statement, they said “this is particularly frightening for people who ride scooters in London.”

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 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 toward 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 neighbourhood, said 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.”

You are seeking to destroy your victim, he said.

Campaigners say the rise in attacks could be linked to a clampdown on weapons. In 2015, a “two strikes” rule was introduced so those convicted of carrying a knife for the second time received a mandatory six-month prison sentence.

The British government is reviewing its 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.

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 offence to carry acid around on the streets in the same way that it is already in the UK a criminal offence to carry a knife,” he said.

— Washington Post