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Sindh ushers in witness protection bill

Pakistan on 31 October 2013
Location : Karachi, Pakistan | Source : Central Asia Online. Image Source: Central Asia Online

Sindh's new witness protection programme is expected to help change the provincial criminal justice system radically, officials say.

The programme is designed to encourage witnesses to testify against suspects accused of heinous crimes and terrorism in exchange for offering witnesses and their families protection against potential reprisals.

The Sindh Assembly passed the bill September 18 and the law will take effect once Sindh Governor Ishrat-ul-Ibad Khan signs it.

The programme intends to protect citizens who consider it their civic duty to assist the state in its fight against criminals by providing evidence or testifying in the courts, but hesitate to do so because of concerns for their personal security, Sindh Law Minister Dr. Sikandar Ali Mandhro told Central Asia Online.

"Inadequacies in the criminal justice systems might mean that victims are not able to access the services … [and] may be re-victimised by the criminal justice system itself," he said. "Victims and witnesses who receive appropriate and adequate care are more likely to co-operate with the criminal justice system."

Components of witness protection
When the bill is signed into law, the programme will establish an advisory board, with the Sindh home secretary serving as its chairman. Other board members would include the secretaries of the law and finance departments, the advocate general, the prosecutor general, a representative of the provincial human rights commission, and the inspectors general of police, prisons and Criminal Investigation Department (CID).

The chief witness protection officer would report to the board and decide whether a witness qualifies for the programme.

"Under the witness protection programme, witnesses will provide evidence and appear before court without any fear," Mandhro said.

During an investigation or trial they would be allowed to conceal their identity with a mask, alias and voice distorting equipment, officials said, adding that witnesses also could testify via a video-conference call to the courtroom.

The programme calls for protecting witnesses, should they come under serious threat, from reprisals against testifying by relocating them to other parts of Sindh and giving them new identities. If needed, the government would provide them with housing accommodations and financial assistance.

Under the law, the government also is supposed to provide for a witness's family and pay for his or her children's education in the event that the witness is murdered.

'An essential component'
Government officials and lawyers welcomed the bill, with both the ruling and opposition blocs of the Sindh Assembly supporting its passage.

"Effective witness protection programmes are an essential component of a comprehensive criminal justice response to protect those who are key in dismantling organised crime groups," Sindh Law Minister Dr. Sikandar Ali Mandhro told Central Asia Online.

Terrorists in Sindh Province frequently go free because of a lack of witnesses, he said, adding that the government enacted the law to put extortionists, kidnappers and targeted killers in jail.

"The courts cannot issue punishment without fulfilling the requirements of justice," he said. "Yet they often get blamed for releasing dangerous criminals who repeat their crimes."

"This constitutes a significant step for criminal justice by acknowledging a responsibility to protect witnesses, as well as the benefit to criminal justice processes of doing so," Syed N. Malik, a Punjab-based high court lawyer, said.

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