Sealing lacunae: NGO goes to court seeking witness protection laws

A majority of terror suspects are acquitted because there is no evidence or testimony.

Our Correspondent January 30, 2012

KARACHI: Top government and police officials have been roped in to a petition that takes up the creation of a witness protection programme for Sindh, seen by many as a solution to the low conviction rate.

Unlike in other parts of the world, Pakistan does not have a law in this area. Witnesses are loathe to expose themselves to the high risk of giving incriminating testimonies as either they or their families are fatally attacked, many times on the premises of the court as has been seen in karo kari cases. This is the point argued by the person who filed the petition, Syed Muhammad Iqbal Kazmi of the Human Rights Commission South Asia, not to be mistaken for the HRCP. When it comes to heinous offences, or terrorism, prosecution witnesses are often threatened by the parties standing trial or the powerful political groups that support them.

Thus, in his petition, he has appealed to the Sindh High Court for it to order the federal and provincial governments to come up with laws to tackle this issue.

In the first place, people are unwilling to offer testimonies against powerful criminals. This explains the low conviction rate. According to the petitioner, in 80% of terrorism cases, the courts are forced to set the criminals free because the police can’t muster any witnesses willing to come forward.

Then there is the problem of witnesses who are lined up to speak in court, but who turn hostile or recant in face of intimidation or because of a lack of protection. Here too the courts have no choice but to acquit for lack of evidence.

According to the current laws, the police can only swing into action when a prosecution witness complains of intimidation or harassment and not before. These witnesses are not automatically given protection.

In an unusual plea, the petitioner also asked the court to issue a general order for the protection of witnesses until the laws were made.

The SHC issued notices to the federal interior secretary, Sindh home secretary and Sindh police chief for an unspecified date.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 31st, 2012.

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