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Dominic Lawson: An 'eye for an eye' is proper justice

The blinding of her tormentor would not have given Bahremi back her eyesight, or her job, but she had a point

Ameneh Bahrami has been waiting a long time for the justice she seeks. In 2004, while she was returning home from work, a man named Majid Movahedi threw a bucketful of acid into her face, leaving her blinded and also horribly disfigured. Bahrami had repeatedly turned down Movahedi's proposals of marriage, which included promises to kill her unless she consented; but instead of carrying out that threat, Movahedi decided that if he couldn't have her, then he would make sure that no other man would desire her.

The Iranian courts determined on a fine and prison sentence for Movahedi, but his victim insisted that she was entitled by law to qisas (retribution) because, in her words, "only this way will he understand my pain". In 2008 she won her case, after which Movahedi's lawyers launched a number of appeals, all of which were unsuccessful.

Thus it was decided that on 14 May 2011 – that is, last Saturday – Bahrami's wish would be carried out. Movahedi was to be taken to Tehran's Judiciary Hospital and there, under full anaesthetic, have a few drops of acid put into each of his eyes, rendering him blind. At this point, the issue suddenly became of more than local concern. Amnesty International declared that such a sentence "amounted to torture"; the British Foreign Office protested, saying (presumably on behalf of the British people) that "we are deeply concerned by reports that Majid Movahedi's sentence of being blinded by having acid dripped into his eyes may be carried out". Surprisingly, given its known contempt for both the British government and Western human rights organisations, the Iranian authorities intervened to block the judicial blinding of Movahedi.

If the Foreign Office intervention truly reflected the view of the nation it represents, then we in Britain would now be heaving a collective sigh of relief that Majid Movahedi has been preserved from his victim's retribution. Yet I can't say that I am greatly relieved; my empathy remains wholly with Ameneh Bahrami, who not only lives with a dreadful unappeased pain, but who is unable, because of her blindness, to work as the engineer she qualified to be.

The blinding of her tormentor would not have given Bahrami back her eyesight or her job; but she had come to regard herself as one who was acting for the benefit of other women in a society where the law seemed to be loaded in favour of violent and abusive men. As she had told a Spanish newspaper: "My intention is to ask for the application of the law not just for revenge but also so that no other woman will have to go through this. It will set an example."

Perhaps it would, and perhaps it wouldn't; but she has a point. Across parts of the Middle East and South Asia, acid-throwing attacks on women are appallingly commonplace, usually as a form of revenge for the spurning of sexual advances, or marriage proposals. Shahnaz Bukhari, who founded the Progressive Women's Association in Rawalpindi to help the victims of this form of violent assault, had, according to a New York Times article two-and-a-half years ago, "documented 7,800 cases of women who had been deliberately burned, scalded or subjected to acid attacks, just in the Islamabad area. In only 2 per cent of those cases was anyone convicted."

Such crimes, and the lack of strong deterrent sentencing, are by no means unknown in this country: a doctor friend of mine told me that although he regarded as "barbaric" the judicial blinding Ms Bahrami sought, he had been no less appalled when a man who had twice thrown acid in the face of a woman patient of his received a sentence of two years (half of which was served). As this doctor observed: "What Ms Bahrami seeks can be described as justice, even if it is also barbaric. What happened to my patient could not be described as justice, except in the technical sense that it was the sentence passed by a judge." He added that while, under legislation enacted by the last Labour government, people are entitled to have read out in court so-called "victim impact statements", judges are obliged by the law to ignore such statements when considering sentence. So this is not justice but mere theatre, which dishonestly portrays the courts as concerned with the views of the victim.

The idea of retributive justice may be sneered at by our own legal establishment; but it has a continuing hold on the sentiments of the public and, to judge by the success of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, that includes the novel-reading public. Stieg Larsson's book, which was originally titled Men Who Hate Women, describes how Lisbeth Salander, who has been raped and tortured by her legal guardian Nils Bjurman, retaliates by – let us skip the details – giving him a taste of his own medicine. She finishes off by tattooing the words "I am a sadistic pig, a pervert and a rapist" on Bjurman's torso. These actions serve only to enhance Salander's heroic status in the eyes of the reader; yet in identifying with her, the public is endorsing retributive punishment of the most brutal sort.

To those brought up under the influence of the New Testament, and the Sermon on the Mount, the concept of justice as "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" is seen as something very dark and primitive. Yet the Old Testament prophets who set out this doctrine in the book known as Leviticus were actually attempting to assert proportionality in punishment. The lex talionis, as it was known, sought to limit any retribution to something no greater than the crime which had been committed, quite an enlightened thought at the time, when multi-generational feuds were the common response to insult and injury.

The lex talionis, it is true, makes no attempt to deal with notions of forgiveness or rehabilitation, which are the touchstones of more modern systems of justice. Yet the state has no right to forgive an assailant on behalf of the victim – that is uniquely her prerogative; as for rehabilitation, that is a valuable social tool, but it has absolutely nothing to do with justice, commonly understood.

As Professor William Miller of the University of Michigan Law School observed in his 2006 book An Eye For An Eye, underneath our sophisticated modern legal processes "we still harbour talionic beliefs that make us uneasy when wrongdoers don't pay for their crimes in exact proportion to the harm they cause ... that's why we like stories about characters who even up the score with their enemies, not just vigilante action films, but comedies in which ... the bullied nerd triumphs in the end. That's why we're fascinated by revenge."

Against that doctrine, Gandhi's remark is often quoted: "An eye for an eye makes the world blind." It is a resonant and compelling image; but what if "an eye for an eye" acts as a discouragement to the sort of assault that Majid Movahedi inflicted on Ameena Bahrami? What if it meant not that the whole world becomes blind, but that many fewer women in patriarchal societies suffered acid attacks at the hands of vengeful men?