Witness protection

20 Nov 2020

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AMONGST the numerous factors hobbling the criminal justice system in Pakistan is the fact that due to inefficient witness protection programmes, eyewitnesses are afraid to testify, or end up retracting their testimony. As pointed out recently in this paper, three witnesses retracted their statements in the high-profile case of Naqeebullah Mehsud, an aspiring model who was gunned down in a staged encounter on the outskirts of Karachi allegedly by policemen. According to the counsel of Naqeebullah’s family, the witnesses backed out because they were afraid to testify against ‘influential’ suspects, which include former policeman Rao Anwar. This is not the first incident of its kind, as ATC judges have said on record that members of the public are ‘too frightened’ to assist the state in prosecuting terrorists and violent criminals. This is understandable, for unless witnesses are promised foolproof protection for themselves and their families, not many will risk their lives to testify against dangerous suspects. While a witness protection law has been passed in Sindh, its full implementation remains lacking, which explains people’s reluctance to take the witness stand without fear.

However, should the state so desire, it can put in place an effective witness protection programme that can help bring violent perpetrators to justice. For example, the paramilitary Rangers ensure protection to witnesses in cases which they prosecute, and observers say this was one of the key reasons for the successful prosecution in the Baldia factory fire incident in Karachi. Indeed, the state must ensure that such programmes — which protect the identity of vulnerable witnesses and help relocate them if necessary — are put in place for better prosecution of cases of terrorism and violent crime. If the state leaves witnesses to fend for themselves, no one will be willing to risk their life to testify against violent actors and powerful, well-connected suspects. Pakistan’s criminal justice system leaves a lot to be desired. Along with better investigation, a credible witness protection programme can help improve matters.

Published in Dawn, November 20th, 2020