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Law for witness protection in ‘deep freezer’

Bangladesh on 09 September 2013
Location : Dhaka, Bangladesh | Source : The Dhaka Tribune. Image Source: The Dhaka Tribune

Legal professionals have identified the absence of an all-encompassing witness protection act as one major reason for the failure to establish rule of law in the country.

Let alone the sensitive cases like the ones filed for crimes against humanity during the Liberation War or the corruption cases against political figures, even the witnesses in the less publicised upazila level murder cases live dangerously.

Only on Friday, a witness to a murder case in Lohagara of Chittagong was beaten to death. His family alleged that criminals hired by the accused had killed him.

The Radar Purchase Graft Case against military dictator HM Ershad has been on trial for more than 20 years because prosecution found it really hard to find witnesses in the case.

Couple of years ago, the law ministry prepared a draft of a law titled “Witness Protection Act 2011” and sent to the home ministry.

Law Minister Shafique Ahmed said the draft law had since been lying idle in what he called was the home ministry’s “deep freezer.”

In February 2011, a commission, led by Professor M Shah Alam, produced a report recommending official mechanism for providing protection for the witnesses in sensitive cases and the victims of grave crimes.

The commission said Australia, Canada, Brazil, Italy, South Africa, USA, UK, Ireland, the Netherlands, the Philippines, Colombia, New Zealand, Thailand and Germany had in place specific witness protection laws. It also said among the countries in the sub-continent, India and Sri Lanka had been actively mulling the enactment of a similar law.

According to the commission’s recommendations, the enactment of a specific law would give all kinds of protection – including psychological – to the witnesses and victims of grave crimes like wartime atrocities, crimes against humanity and peace, drug dealings, piracy, and so.

The commission recommended that the families of the witnesses and victims would also be brought under the protection; and the arrangements would continue even after the verdicts were delivered and the guilty served sentences.

Ahmed Miraz, brother of noted composer Ahmed Imtiaz Bulbul, was killed in March. Bulbul earlier testified against Razakar kingpin Ghulam Azam, who was given 90 years’ jail for masterminding the 1971 wartime atrocities.

The mystery surrounding the February death of Wahidul Alam Junu, an important witness against BNP leader Salauddin Quader Chowdhury in the war crimes cases, is still to be unearthed.

The commission in its report also expressed concerns that witnesses could be often seen turning “hostile” fearing retaliation by the accused.

A hostile witness is a person who gives adverse testimony or displays hostility or prejudice against the party which called him or her to testify.

Examples could be found in the war crimes cases where at least three prosecution witnesses turned hostile. Prosecution members said there were also many cases when witnesses never appeared before the court to testify against accused war criminals fearing retaliation.

One prosecution witness turned hostile in the case against Jamaat chief Matiur Rahman Nizami, while another was declared hostile in the case against BNP leader Abdul Alim.

Despite being enlisted as a prosecution witness, one Ganesh Chandra Saha, turned hostile in the case against Jamaat leader Delawar Hossain Sayedee. Sukharanjan Bali, another enlisted prosecution witness against Sayedee, reportedly decided to testify in favour of the accused.

Prosecution members of the International Crimes Tribunal alleged that these witnesses had been threatened to give deposition in favour of the accused.

Other instances of hostile witnesses could be found with the corruption cases filed by the Anti-Corruption Commission.

An ACC official told the Dhaka Tribune that in at least 733 of such cases, many of which were against political “big fishes,” the accused had to be acquitted because not enough number of witnesses were ready to testify against them.

The same thing happened when the suspects were enlisted top criminals such as Pichchi Helal, Subrata Bain, Prokash Kumar Biswas, Tokai Sagar and Killer Abbas, the official said.

Member of the Ekattorer Ghatak Dalal Nirmul Committee, a platform for ensuring capital punishment for war criminals, alleged that having been threatened by Jamaat “goons,” many witnesses never appeared to testify against war criminals Quader Mollah and Sayedee.

They said apprehending life threats, some witnesses had even gone into hiding in order to avoid to be testified at the tribunal.

Nirmul committee Executive President Shahriar Kabir told the Dhaka Tribune that the prosecution should not only ensure the attendance of the witnesses, it should also cover for their overall protection even after the verdict was delivered.

“Since war crimes trial began in March 2010, we have been pressing the government for enacting a law which will ensure protection of the witnesses,” he said.

Tribunal rules suggest that there are provisions for ensuring protection for the witnesses if the tribunal deems fit. It also says the government will have to ensure the protection if the tribunal seeks for.

International Crimes Tribunal Prosecutor Tureen Afroz told the Dhaka Tribune that the government should enact a specific law protecting the witnesses because the crimes they testified against were horrific. “The rules of the tribunal do not cover overall protection.”

However, Prosecutor Muhammad Ali told the Dhaka Tribune that there was no need for a separate law for guarding the witnesses of war crimes cases as the rules of the tribunal was enough to ensure necessary protection.

Tajul Islam, one of the defence lawyers of the war crimes cases, said: “The rules do not protect defence witnesses. We need a distinct law to safeguard the witnesses. That will not only ensure their testimony without fear but also protect them afterwards.”

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