Witness protection

January 29, 2020

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IT is a fact that for the criminal justice system to deliver, a strong witness protection programme is needed. This is especially so in a country like Pakistan, where there is a huge backlog of cases concerning acts of terrorism and violent crime. Due to the nature of such offences and fearing retaliation by the perpetrators, witnesses are often afraid to testify. There have been instances where people have refused to give testimony in cases where notorious sectarian militants were being tried. As pointed out in a recent report in this paper, trials in terrorism cases in Sindh’s anti-terrorism courts are being held up because the province’s witness protection law, passed in 2017, has not been implemented. The result is a backlog of 1,700 cases in Sindh’s 33 ATCs, and a conviction rate of around 17pc. The conviction rate in other provinces is hardly better in terrorism cases, with the lack of a proper witness protection mechanism contributing to this state of affairs.

When hardened criminals threaten witnesses or their families with dire consequences if they dare to testify, and the state does nothing to protect them, who will be brave enough to appear in the witness box? That is why the provinces need to take serious measures to implement workable witness protection programmes that protect the identities of those who come forward to testify against violent individuals. As quoted in the aforementioned story, an ATC judge trying militants allegedly linked to the self-styled Islamic State group observed that “the public has become too frightened to assist the system fighting against terrorism...” To reduce this sense of fear, witnesses must be offered robust protection by the state, and new identities and relocation if need be. The methodology of advanced legal systems can be studied and their best practices replicated here. Unless the witness protection laws are implemented, many militants and violent actors will either walk free, or be gunned down in shadowy encounters due to the faulty criminal justice system.

Published in Dawn, January 29th, 2020