Female victim of acid attack withdraws complaint against perpetrator

(Updates and corrections on statements throughout) 

A 19-year-old Turkish woman has withdrawn her complaint against her ex-boyfriend, who threw sulphuric acid at her last year, severely disfiguring her face and leaving her partially blind.

The withdrawal of the complaint has led to concerns that the perpetrator may be released, but according to Turkish law, an attack of this nature would be prosecuted in a public case without requiring any personal complaint.

Berfin Özek was ambushed on Jan. 15, 2019 by her ex-boyfriend, Ozan Çelik, as she returned home from school in Iskenderun, southern Turkey. The acid attack melted her skin, blinding her in one eye and leaving her partially blind in the other.

After being hospitalized for four months, Özek returned to her home in Iskenderun in Hatay province.

On Jan. 7, the perpetrator, Çelik, who faced life imprisonment for "attempted premeditated murder", was instead sentenced to 13 years in prison for "deliberate injury".

The sentence was slammed by women’s rights groups in Turkey, where murders of women by men remain a major problem. While acid attacks are not common in the country, Özek's case spurred great controversy as a sign of escalation in the violence against women.

Özek's attorney Mehtap Sert said the perpetrator had carefully planned the attack, stressing that he also threw acid on the woman's chest, damaging her mammary glands, Bianet news agency reported.

“One of my eyes is blind. If he is released tomorrow, how can I go out on the street? Am I supposed to [always] live in fear that something bad could happen at any moment?” Duvar newspaper quoted Özek as saying after the hearing on Jan 7. “I have no safety. I have been permanently damaged… I’m very surprised that he didn’t get life in prison. Our legal struggle will continue and we will challenge this decision.”

However, with a sudden change of heart, on April 9, Özek filed a petition with the 1st High Criminal Court of İskenderun, withdrawing her complaint about her ex-boyfriend and dismissing her lawyers. Özek said in her petition that she loved Ozan and that she wanted to marry him.

Özek’s lawyer Nevzat Ercan had, on April 8, told Sözcü newspaper that the new bill on sentence enforcements that is currently under discussion by parliament would see Çelik released within three months. Ercan said:

“Under the current enforcement regime, [Çelik’s sentence] would mean three years in a closed prison, followed by two years in an open prison. With the new regulation, he would transfer to an open prison in three months, where he will be entitled to a two-month leave. After that, he will have the right to use another two-month leave, but face no penalty if he doesn’t return. That means he will be released.”

The İskenderun Women's Platform, a women's rights organization that supported Özek in her legal case and medical treatment, protested the withdrawal, saying that her decision went against the principles of the group.

“Although we informed Berfin of the legal and health consequences of her withdrawing her complaint, she went ahead to withdraw it on her own free will. As this goes against our principle of 'We don't want love that kills,' we will not participate in any activity related to Berfin,” the platform said in a statement.

Following widespread backlash for dropping support for Özek, the platform later issued another statement critiquing their own treatment of the matter.

“What should be questioned in this case is not that a woman forgave a perpetrator, but the fact that the perpetrators, who will be released by this amnesty bill, want to perpetuate their violence enabled by the state,” the new statement said.

The Özek family decided to push forward with the legal process, it added.

Lawmaker Lütfü Türkkan of the centre-right opposition Good Party said during a speech in parliament that Özek had been pushed to withdraw her complaint. “Berfin’s lawyers told me that she had been forced to write that petition because she was afraid her ex-boyfriend would be released and hurt her again.”

According to the "We Will Stop Femicides Platform", a women's rights organization aiming to end murders of women in Turkey, 474 women were killed in 2019 by their husbands, boyfriends, ex-husbands, ex-boyfriends, relatives, sons, fathers, or brothers. Some 32 percent of the perpetrators have not been identified.