Witness Protection: A Matter Too Serious To Be Handed Over To Police & Bureaucrats
The importance of an effective Witness Protection Program has been underscored by a series of the United Nations Conventions on Terrorism and Organized Crime. A creditable Witness Protection Program involves concealing the true identity of a witness, making allowance for recording testimony through video link, relocating the witness to a safer place under new identity and paying compensation to heirs in case a witness is attacked, injured or killed.
At the moment, Pakistan lacks a proper Witness Protection Program; as a result, witnesses either fail to show up or turn hostile in the course of proceedings. Consequently, courts are left with no option but to acquit or release the accused for want of evidence. Eye witnesses including those related to the victim will rarely step forward to record their testimony because of the fear of backlash. Consequently, in large number of cases, no matter how genuine they are, witnesses have to be planted. This lays ground for a weak and flimsy trial. Nonetheless, fear of backlash may not be the only reason stopping the witnesses from entering the dock, tedious and cumbersome process of recording evidence is in itself a big turn off.
In any case, witnesses are important people who put their lives at risk for the purposes of bringing to justice those found involved in heinous crimes. Hence, they deserve to be looked after and cared for. A state or society which fails to afford protection to its witnesses is destined to end up becoming a global pariah.
Recently, the Provincial Assembly of Sindh passed a law entitled ‘The Sindh Witness Protection Act 2013.’ This law provides complete government security to witnesses in criminal cases which includes, life protection, relocation, reasonable accommodation, financial assistance and even compensation to legal heirs if the protected person is killed or dies during the process. However, according to newspaper reports, the implementation of the law is yet to see light of the day. As per the law in question, the implementation was required to be carried out by a ‘Board’ comprising Home Secretary Sindh, IGs of Police and Prison and couple of other government functionaries.
According to newspaper reports, when the Board Members were inquired about the implementation of Sindh Witness Protection Act 2013, they replied that they had heard of a law having been passed but nobody approached them for its implementation. Likewise, when legislators were questioned why the implementation was being held back, they replied that their task was to enact the law and now the responsibility rested with the executive to give effect to its provisions. This summarizes the attitude of our policy makers towards laws and their application. All they do is to pass a new law and then drag their feet on the same and let the executive take hold of the project including finance allocated to meet its expenses.
The US witness protection program provides an excellent example of how an effective program could be built and given effect to. The credit for its success goes mainly to the implementation agency. Unlike, the miserable Board set up by the parallel legislation of Sindh, the US law has given the task of its implementation to the oldest and one the most reliable federal law enforcement agencies namely the US Marshals. The Marshals had previously performed the tasks of registering enemy aliens in wartime, sealing the American border against armed expeditions from foreign countries, and swapping spies with the Soviet Union. Now its area of operations has been enlarged to include functions such as apprehending wanted fugitives, providing protection for the federal judiciary, transporting federal prisoners, protecting endangered federal witnesses, and managing assets seized from criminal enterprises.
The members of Sindh Assembly need to realize that public will not come forward to depose against the offenders unless they trust the government with respect to their own security. However, repeated attacks on witnesses have created a trust deficit. Therefore, giving the task of witness protection to one of the organs less trusted by public would do no good to the cause of improving conviction rate. To borrow from the quote of Georges Clemenceau ‘Witness protection is too serious a matter to entrust to bureaucrats and police’. So what is the other option?
To my mind, the only law enforcement agency which enjoys public confidence in the matters of security remains Pakistan Army. The Army could be handed over the task of witness protection on experimental basis. If services of Army could be procured for disaster management & conducting elections, I can see no reason why their expertise may not be utilized for running a creditable witness protection program. The need for establishing military courts arose from existing system’s failure to punish terror suspects. This failure was caused by witnesses not turning up in court rooms, turning hostile or simply losing their lives because of inadequate security arrangements. If the apparatus of witness security is strengthened with the help of Army, this could remove the justification for establishing military courts.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of any organization with which he might be associated.