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Police witness protection unit in limbo

December 12, 2011

KARACHI, Dec 12: While the Sindh home minister last month announced the establishment of a 'witness protection unit' in the police department, no such unit has been set up yet to ensure security of people appearing in courts as witnesses, it emerged on Monday.

The provincial cabinet had given approval for a 'witness protection programme' earlier this year for the security of witnesses testifying against undertrial suspects of terrorism, targeted killings and other heinous crimes.

And on Nov 16, Home Minister Manzoor Wasan told a gathering of businessmen that a witness protection unit had been established in the police department to provide security to witnesses, their relatives and their property.However, a senior police officer told that no witness protection unit had been set up in the police department so far.

“The initiative may be in the pipeline, but right now it is not in place practically. We have no idea what will be the new unit structure if it is set up in the police department.”

Threat to the lives of witnesses in some crucial cases is not a new phenomenon. In most high-profile cases, witnesses continue to face threats, but there is no proper platform where they can ask for protection. This became evident last month when two witnesses were killed in the city.

A former press secretary of the Shia Ulema Council, who was a prosecution witness in the Tahir Plaza case, Kausar Hussain Zaidi, was shot dead near Pakistan Chowk.

A lawyer and his four clients were burnt alive when Tahir Plaza was set on fire on April 9, 2008.

However, police said, the witness recently failed to identify two suspects arrested for having a role in the arson attack.

Just a few days after the killing of Mr Zaidi, 32-year-old Qasim Ali was shot dead in front of Ibne Hasan Hospital in Malir.Police said he was a prosecution witness in a case pertaining to the 2006 suicide bombing in which Allama Hasan Turabi was killed.

While the police were not aware of the exact motive behind the two killings, they said that the victims had no protection cover despite the fact that they were witness in two crucial cases.

Draft proposal

Although the provincial cabinet had approved the witness protection programme, it had not yet become a law because the draft proposal was still being vetted by the provincial law department.

“The witness protection programme is pending with the provincial law department, which will send it to the Sindh Assembly for legislation,” said Sharfuddin Memon, a consultant at the Sindh home department.

Till the programme became a law, the home minister had decided to set up a unit in the police department for the same purpose, he added.

However, he could not explain as to why even the unit within the police department had not yet become operational almost a month after the minister's announcement.

“Witness protection is the protection of a threatened witness, before, during and after a trial, usually by police. While a witness may only require protection until the conclusion of a trial, some witnesses are provided with new identity and may live out the rest of their lives under government protection,” said the draft of the witness protection programme that had been approved by the provincial cabinet.

“Witness protection is usually required in trials against organised crime, where law-enforcement agencies see a risk for witnesses to be intimidated by colleagues of defendants.”