Killing shows govt failure to implement witness protection law
KARACHI: The killing of a key witness to the murder of Sabeen Mahmud late last week has again highlighted the failure of the provincial government to implement the law on witness protection that has been demanded by groups and individuals working for human rights and legal issues.
The Sindh government’s ambitious plan to make ‘hefty investments’ in procuring technology and hiring experts to ensure that the Sindh Witness Protection Act, 2013, is duly enforced has yet to materialise, as it has not yet succeeded in framing rules and regulations.
The law was passed by the provincial assembly two years ago — the first of its kind in any province of the country — to restore public confidence in government capability to bring about improved prosecution but the law department, which is entrusted with the task of executing it, has not yet made its by-laws.
“This law was aimed at investing significantly in strengthening our prosecution side, which could not be achieved without people’s support,” said a senior government official.
He, however, added that if the landmark law was implemented, it would put the authorities in a position to ensure better prosecution, which was not possible before as “we had no programme to protect key witnesses”.
He said the prerequisites of the new law envisaged made it mandatory for the provincial government to make good investments in this service.
Another official claimed that the work on the by-laws was in its finishing stages and would soon be there to get the law executed with all its components.
“We have already started our homework to get the services of experts and introduce a whole science to ensure justice to victims. I can’t tell you how much money we require, but our experts and officials are making assessments and arranging for funds to act according to the spirit of the law,” he said.
He said apart from technology and experts that need to be put in place, the most necessary thing was help people overcome their fear, for which “we are planning to make all measures on political and media fronts to get everyone in the loop”.
He said: “Eradicating fears from the people, who often avoid being party to criminal cases, is the need of the hour. Politicians have their role to play apart from technologists and we are approaching everyone to help us in restoring people’s belief in the justice system.”
Dr Sikander Mandhro, provincial minister for parliamentary affairs, was in-charge of the law department when the assembly passed the law. He said the philosophy behind the passage of the act was to remove fear from witnesses in cases of heinous crimes.
“Experts from all spheres, including the bench and the bar from the judiciary, had been engaged to draft and pass the law. Now it is the responsibility of the relevant quarters to implement and execute it, which will certainly encourage witnesses to come forward and discourage criminals,” said Mr Mandhro while speaking to Dawn.
Shahadat Awan, a former prosecutor-general of Sindh, candidly said that such an ambitious project had been successful in the developed world, but it was not possible to implement it in Sindh because of financial and cultural barriers.
“We have provisions in some previous laws, which could be used to provide effective protection to witnesses. Sindh’s law is a good effort, but is not practically possible as yet,” he told Dawn.
The law offers ambitious prospects to protect a witness from criminals. Its huge reliance on modern technology proffers changes to hide a witness’s identity — from altering identity documents to facial changes through cosmetic surgery.
On technological front, said an official, a witness’s face could be changed with the help of masks and make-up; their voice could be drastically modified when they are sitting in front of a suspect for identification.
“In other arrangements, a witness could be standing behind a screen or observing an accused through live camera or through video-conferencing along with a judicial official.
According to the law, a board comprising experts, officials and security heads would decide what sort of protection should be given to a witness on a case-to-case basis.