CRISES, crime and tragedy traumatise the people. Trauma not only directly affects the actual victims but also those who witness the cause of their distress. Such victims, especially the victims of crime, suffer from physical, financial and emotional trauma. They need assistance in the process of recovery, restoration and reintegration. One part of rehabilitation is to prevent secondary victimisation and the other is to protect the victims from threats to their lives and property.
There are humanistic and compassionate reasons to assist and protect victims of crime. But the criminal justice system also mandates a mechanism for this purpose. The victims come from different age groups and gender and socioeconomic backgrounds. They can be affected by a variety of criminal acts, such as a bank robbery, cybercrime, financial crime, fraud, domestic violence, child abuse and street crime. Given the complexity of criminal action and the vulnerability of the victim, detection and prosecution may become a challenge for the police.
The first challenge lies in winning the trust and cooperation of the victims. The cooperation of the victims and witnesses is vital to tracking down criminal offenders. Consistent help from the victim during the trial can help ensure speedy prosecution and punishment for the perpetrators.
Victims and witnesses may be unwilling to share information and evidence because of perceived or actual intimidation or threats towards them and/or their family. This concern intensifies when people come into contact with the criminal justice system as then they are particularly vulnerable. For instance, because of their age and developing maturity, affected children require special measures to be taken to ensure that the criminal justice system appropriately assists and protects them.
Winning trust is crucial to reducing crime.
Victims who receive suitable, authentic and adequate care and support are more likely to cooperate with the criminal justice system to bring offenders to justice. In the absence of such a mechanism, they might mistrust the system or lose interest in following up on the case. Other inadequacies of the criminal justice system such as delays, time and cost also add to the victim’s sense of loss. If contact between police and the victim is compromised, the damage to the victim, police and the community as a whole can be irreparable. The victim can easily be targeted by the offender or be coerced into silence or may feel pressure to agree to an out-of-court settlement. For the police, the cost of losing contact with the victim is massive. The offender walks away scot-free and may repeat the crime, jeopardising the effectiveness of the police in that area or community.
For this purpose, victim protection programmes are introduced at the state level and implemented by assisting law-enforcement agencies. The aim is not only to shield the victim from harm but to also prosecute the offender, which in turn helps the police prevent or reduce crime.
More often than not, victim protection programmes incorporate a section for witness protection as well because of the trauma and fear a witness experiences during and after the crime. Unless the witness is also protected against intended threats, there is very little chance that the criminal case will proceed smoothly during the trial.
The salient features of these victim and witness protection programmes are almost universal and can always be customised to suit a particular policing environment. Under such programmes, the victim is reasonably protected from the accused. The detailed contours of protection and assistance programmes pave the path for an integrated and holistic approach that starts with the early identification of vulnerable and intimidated witnesses to the management of the latter by especially trained law-enforcement officials. In extraordinary circumstances, witness protection may involve permanent relocation and re-identification.
Keeping in mind the delays in access to justice, a victim also has the right to reasonable, accurate and timely notice of any public court proceeding, or any parole with regard to the crime or of the accused individual’s release or escape. The victim must be heard and his or her respect and dignity must be safeguarded against vilification. Legal assistance must immediately be extended to them, and if needed, psychological assistance before and during the trial to cope with emotional obstacles to testifying must also be provided.
In many cases involving murder or ancestral feuds, protective measures before, during and after the hearing or trial for victims and witnesses is to be ensured. This step guarantees the safety of the victim while testifying so that they can do so without feeling any pressure or anxiety. It is, therefore, important, that similar programmes be introduced in Pakistan for strengthening access to justice and for efficient service delivery.
The writer is a police officer.
Published in Dawn, July 1st, 2022