Witness protection

Published September 10, 2015
Witness protection programmes need planning, commitment and sufficient funds to be truly effective. —Reuters/File
Witness protection programmes need planning, commitment and sufficient funds to be truly effective. —Reuters/File

THE murder of the eyewitness in the Sabeen Mahmud case has once again underscored the urgent need for a witness protection programme.

Ghulam Abbas was working as a part-time driver for Ms Mahmud, the well-known rights activist, and was present at the scene when she was gunned down in Karachi on April 24.

Although it has not yet been confirmed whether the two murders are connected, police have disclosed that during the trial of those accused of Ms Mahmud’s assassination, the slain driver had identified some of the men, a fact that increases the likelihood of precisely such a link.

Know more: Key witness in Sabeen Mahmud murder case shot dead in Karachi

Even if Mr Abbas’s death does not affect the bearing that his testimony will have on the outcome of the legal proceedings, it is certain to intimidate witnesses in other high-profile cases.

Witnesses are vital for successful investigation and prosecution of crime, particularly in countries like Pakistan where the forensic science regime is not very well developed.

The protection of witnesses is therefore a basic requirement to secure their cooperation and give them the confidence to come forward. On the contrary, however, the intimidation of witnesses continues without let or hindrance, perverting the course of justice and allowing many suspects, even those accused of heinous crimes, to go free.

The case of Wali Khan Babar illustrates the gravity of the threat. Six witnesses to the murder of the young journalist in 2011 were themselves eliminated one after another over the course of less than two years.

According to a study carried out by the Punjab police, more than 80pc of terrorism cases resulted in the acquittal of the accused because witnesses either retracted their testimony or refused to appear in court because of intimidation by criminals.

Although the Sindh Assembly passed witness protection legislation in 2013, the law is obviously not being implemented. Witness protection programmes need planning, commitment and sufficient funds to be truly effective. It is a small price to pay, however, for ensuring that hardened criminals are sent behind bars.

Published in Dawn, September 10th, 2015

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