KARACHI: Witnesses for the prosecution in several high-profile cases, including terrorism, are increasingly turning hostile as the Sindh government appears uninterested in implementing its own witness protection laws, it emerged on Thursday.
Eyewitnesses in dozens of criminal cases have been unable to testify, or have preferred not to turn up, against the accused before the anti-terrorism courts due to fear and insecurity despite the fact that they nominated such accused in the FIRs and identified them before judicial magistrates before the beginning of trials, as no specialised unit has been set up for their protection.
The provincial assembly passed the Sindh Witness Protection Act, 2013 in September last year for absolute government security to witnesses in criminal cases, including life protection, reasonable accommodation, financial assistance and compensation to legal heirs if the protected person is killed or dies during the process.
However, the witnesses are still without protection as the provincial authorities have yet to enforce the law in letter and spirit.
Legal experts believe that poor implementation of the law has discouraged witnesses from testifying, adding that legislation about protection of witnesses and other people connected with trials already existed in the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1997, which clearly states that the government should extend protection to witnesses and others during the investigation, trial and thereafter. But these provisions are hardly implemented, they add.
Sub-sections 2 and 3 of Section 21 of the ATA read: “For purposes of protection of the judges, [members], accused, witnesses, prosecutors and defence counsel and anyone concerned with the court proceedings, the government may adopt such other measures as may be appropriate or may be prescribed [and the armed forces shall also provide comprehensive protection and securing to the judges, members, accused, witnesses, prosecutors, investigators, defence counsel and all those concerned in the court proceedings]. The government shall extend protection to a judge [members], a counsel, public prosecutor and the witnesses during investigation of an offence and proceedings under this act, and thereafter, as may considered necessary”.
Use of screens during trial to shield witnesses, judges and prosecutors from public view, trial through video links and some other amendments were also made to Section 21 of the ATA in 2013, but its implementation remained a distant dream.
In the past, judges as well as prosecutors of the ATCs also sent many letters to the authorities concerned to provide them proper security, but the prosecutors are still unsatisfied over their security.
In the absence of a witness protection unit, it appears to be almost impossible for witnesses to turn up in courts and depose against the accused in terrorism-related cases. Therefore, in the past few months a number of witnesses deviated from their previous stance.
An ATC has recently acquitted three accused, said to be political activists, in a case pertaining to an arson attack on a minibus in August 2011 in Keamari that had left around five passengers dead. They were acquitted after the driver and the conductor, the key prosecution witnesses, turned hostile.
The administrative judge of the ATCs released nine suspects in the Shershah scrap market carnage case earlier in 2011 after the complainant, who had nominated them in the FIR with parentage, failed to recognise any of them, while two eyewitnesses of the case rightly picked out some other accused during an identification parade before a magistrate, but they did not turn up before the trial court for evidence. Recently, the prosecution informed the court that they went into hiding due to fear and insecurity as protection was not provided to them regardless of repeated court orders.
Similarly, some prosecution witnesses had turned hostile against Mohammad Ajmal, better known as Akram Lahori, the alleged chief of the banned Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, and his two associates, facing trial in three sectarian and a policeman’s killings cases.
Even around 10 police officials either deviated from their previous evidence or became unable to identify the accused before the trial court in two murder cases lodged against Shahjehan Baloch, a member of the national assembly from Lyari belonging to the Pakistan Peoples Party, and others, including the head of proscribed Peoples Amn Committee, Uzair Jan Baloch, during an operation conducted in Lyari in April-May 2012.
Based on recent statistics, officials at the ATCs have claimed that the number of hostile witnesses have been increasing sharply in extortion cases.
Some prosecutors at the ATCs said that practically there was no specialised unit in the police department for protection of witnesses and generally the courts issued directives to investigation officers to provide protection to them. But, they said, the IOs of the high-profile cases themselves worked in a state of fear and terror.
They believed that a lack of protection for witnesses was undermining the performance of the prosecution and it waqs left with no option but to abandon the witnesses when they were reluctant to depose against the accused due to fear and insecurity.
They recalled that some key witnesses were gunned down in the Wali Babar murder case before their appearance in the trial court.
One of the prosecutors deplored what he described the unwillingness of the police to provide protection to witnesses. The prosecutor said that an ATC recently issued a contempt of court notice to a senior official of the Sindh police for not providing security to the father and other family members of a slain teenage student in the DHA shootout case despite court orders.
Published in Dawn, August 1st, 2014