Witness protection (on Criminal Justice system) -DAWN

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MUCH ails our country’s criminal justice system. A low conviction rate is why the guilty are not put behind bars, and this arises in large part because witnesses are afraid to testify in court. This is especially true for high-profile criminal cases involving arson, murder or terrorism. With the passage of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Witness Protection Bill, 2021, the provincial government has taken a step in the right direction. KP is the last province to legislate on the protection of witnesses, although the law appears to be quite comprehensive. It mandates the formation of a witness protection board comprising seven senior police officers, under the chairmanship of the home and tribal affairs secretary, as well as the establishment of two separate witness protection units, one each for terrorism and criminal cases. The law also allows, if the security situation warrants, for the deposition of a witness to take place outside court premises through a video link. Hopefully, the latter arrangement will lessen the fears that many witnesses have about their safety when testifying against influential criminals in court. The proof of the pudding is in its eating though, and it remains to be seen how the law will improve the conviction rate in KP. Witness protection laws exist in Sindh, Balochistan and Punjab as well but their application leaves a lot to be desired.

The reluctance to testify and the tendency to resile from statements are underscored by judges who themselves have stated that witnesses are too scared to help the courts punish violent criminals and terrorists. Take for example, the murder case of aspiring model Naqeebullah Mehsud, who was killed in a staged encounter in Karachi in 2018. Three witnesses retracted their statements because, according to the victim’s family, they were afraid to testify against the influential policeman who was accused of overseeing this crime. Unfortunately in Pakistan, such examples are legion. According to a report in this paper, Sindh’s inability to implement the witness protection law has hampered the progress of at least 1,700 cases at 33 anti-terrorism courts in the province. It is a shame that the conviction rate remains low because the state cannot ensure witnesses’ safety. Hopefully the KP government will ensure strict implementation of the witness protection law. One also hopes that other provinces will take steps to remedy the situation in their own jurisdictions so that the guilty do not walk free.

Published in Dawn, September 5th, 2021