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Witness protection

February 20, 2018

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IN Pakistan, witnesses are particularly important for prosecuting criminal and terrorism cases given the state’s nascent forensic regime, and the fact that scientific evidence — including DNA — is considered expert opinion and, therefore, on its own not enough to make a case for conviction. Yet, due to the lack of state protection, witnesses (including victims and cooperating criminals) are especially vulnerable to being bought off, exploited, intimidated, even killed. This is a setback to the dispensation of justice, with the resultant delays and dried-up lines of inquiry amounting to depressingly low conviction rates. The long-overdue finalised draft of the Punjab Witness Protection Act, 2018, has the potential to greatly improve this shortcoming. The bill outlines the creation of a provincial witness protection programme whereby any person connected with criminal or terror-related proceedings may apply for protection if they fear that they, their family and/or property are threatened, or are at higher risk by virtue of being a person with disability, a minor or a victim of a sexual offence. Such protection can include safe lodging, financial assistance and security arrangements; concealment or change of identity; recording of testimony through video link; and in-camera or jail trials. Significantly, it also empowers the court to disallow prejudicial and irrelevant questioning of a sexual assault victim’s sexual history, as well as prescribes punishment for reporting that violates press injunctions imposed on a case in order to protect witness anonymity.

But, as seen in Sindh where similar legislation was passed in 2013, such laws are utterly irrelevant if not backed by a commitment to swift implementation. This was not evident when even in a high-profile case such as that of Sabeen Mahmud’s murder in 2015, the sole witness was killed only a few months later. Nor can the state expect witnesses to bear the heaviest risk of putting violent offenders behind bars while legal loopholes and poor practices in evidence gathering, forensic testing and prosecutorial case building go unreformed, venturing an overturning of convictions on appeal. With the Supreme Court currently hearing a petition to reduce delayed and lengthy court proceedings, it is important to note that the chronic backlog in our legal system cannot be addressed by issuing new legislation and policies unless they actually dovetail with systemic, bottom-up changes. Plenty has been said about improving access to justice; now it is time to match rhetoric with resolve.

Published in Dawn, February 20th, 2018