Published in The Sunday Leader on Sep. 14 ::
The Bill on ‘Assistance to and protection of Victims of Crime and Witnesses’ which safeguards the rights of victims and witnesses had been approved by the Cabinet of Ministers in December 2013. However, it was gazetted on 8 August 2014.
According to the government, the law so enacted will create a balance in the Criminal Justice System of Sri Lanka between the rights of those accused, the rights and entitlements of victims of crime, and the entitlements of witnesses.
Under the proposed Bill, the government will set up a national authority for the protection of victims of crime that will be empowered to ‘provide assistance and redress to victims of crime upon an application.’ It will also seek to ensure the credibility of evidence to be extracted from witnesses through video conferencing, and facilitate the conduct of fair trials and justice being meted out to both victims and those accused of crime.
Many human rights groups have emphasized the need of a mechanism to protect the victims and witnesses to improve the human rights situation of the country. Former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, had offered technical support from her office to prepare the draft legislation when she had visited the country in August last year.
The Sunday Leader spoke to some of the politicians, seeking their views on the said Bill
I have still to study the contents of the Bill; this has been a need for such a long time, and all of us have wanted such a Bill.
Thus far, the people have been fearful of coming forward to give evidence, but with the introduction of this Bill, those who wish to give evidence may feel more secure, and come forward to give evidence.
This was what the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) too had recommended. The mechanism will provide legal protection for witnesses by the state, and therefore those who wish to give evidence will not be fearful when giving evidence as they will have state protection.
In theory this Bill is a necessity, but in practice, we have to wait and see how it will work. As we all know, even good laws don’t have the desired effect.
Therefore, we will have to see the outcome before we can decide whether the Bill will make an impact.
We support the Bill so that justice will be meted out to witnesses. And in order for justice to prevail, there should be a level playing field. Unfortunately, people with financial means or political power can change the decisions of the Court by influencing witnesses and the evidence they give.
That is why we often hear of cases against powerful personalities being withdrawn by the Attorney General due to lack of evidence. Sometimes litigants withdraw the cases as they are under the influence of influential people.
The Bill will make influencing victims or witnesses a criminal offence. In view of that, influential people will be discouraged from interfering with victims or witnesses.
Although this is a novel concept in Sri Lanka, these measures are in place in many European countries. In fact, the USA has gone to the extent of changing the identities of witness so as to protect them.
They are given new names, identities, driving licences, so that they will not be identified until such time the case concludes, and therefore, there is no threat to the person concerned.
As you can see, the world has gone to such lengths to protect witnesses. Commenting on different views expressed in this regard, he said there is no relationship between the UN inquiry and the local mechanism now introduced. The Sri Lankan government will protect anyone who will give evidence but not those who are part of the system that had been rejected by the government.
The Witness Protection Bill is not within our expectations. The circumstances within which is has been introduced has raised eyebrows.
The International Community (IC) has brought an inquiry to our doorstep. Therefore, this Bill has been introduced to appease the IC so that they will be under the false belief that the government is going to protect the witnesses.
We as politicians are aware that a false sense of being secure has been created by those who are close to the government.
The UN inquiry has been calling for witnesses to give evidence but responsible ministers have been indirectly threatening those who may come forward as witnesses. They have openly said that anybody who provides evidence at the inquiry will be considered as traitors. Therefore, the government has the stand regarding the inquiry.
Nothing will come out of it unless the government takes a principled stand on the UN inquiry as the process is nothing but a part of the UN system of which this state is also a member. The government can disagree, but it is a part of the process.
If the government can take a stand, it will be much more than the Witness Protection Bill, and will assure the IC that the government is committed to protect the witnesses.
We call upon the government to take a principled stand.
The Witness Protection Bill is long overdue. This matter should have been addressed long before.
Now in a flash it is coming into the laws of the country.
However, the actual protection will depend on implementation when it comes to protection. Most of the victims themselves are the witnesses.
There is a need to protect both witnesses and victims. Even if the witness protection is introduced to the laws, the problem is how practical it will work.
What will police do in the process of providing protection to victims and witnesses? If they come under threats what should the police do? How can they provide protection when the case is going on until the time of the verdict and after? We have to consider all these things in the bill – but implementation of the laws is the proof of the pudding.