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Witness protection - cornerstone of a successful justice system

The success of investigation and prosecution depends largely on the information and testimony of victims and witnesses. This makes their safety a cornerstone of a successful criminal justice system. Without their testimony, few crimes may be successfully prosecuted. Indeed, the Prosecution depend upon reliable witnesses who will cooperate and whose testimony can be accepted as precise and complete. Witnesses’ ability to recall and relay relevant information may be affected by many factors, including age (for minors and the elderly), intellectual or physical impairment, disability, by their relation with the offender or trauma they have suffered. The functioning of the justice system require that the prosecution is able to obtain high-quality evidence. And the prosecution is only able to do so if witnesses feel that it is safe to give evidence.

Witness safety is intrinsically tied to good investigative practices. Best practices such as keeping investigations confidential and minimizing contact with police and prosecutors can go a long way to decrease the threat of intimidation and danger to at risk persons. When police and prosecutors are diligent in their risk assessment of offenders, they are then informed of the risk of future violence against a person and can take the necessary actions to minimize and respond to threats and intimidation. Police and prosecutors must be aware that every contact and cooperation with the justice system exposes people at-risk to further risk. This has to be understood, contained, and dealt with.

In many criminal justice systems, when there is some risk of threat, officers are tasked to advise at risk persons on their own personal security. Some officers go the length of assisting at risk persons improve the security of their homes and help them access mobile phones or other emergency contact points through a network of community members and volunteers.

When there is an ascertainable risk of threat and intimidation, higher measures are put in place including physical bodyguard protection, regular patrol, temporary relocation, and, escorting the witness to his/her place of education, work and to and from the police station, court and home. The Courts may order such measures through a protection order. Protection orders are also served on offenders to warn them that if they breach the order, it may amount to a contempt of court and/or that they may be prosecuted.

At Court, witnesses should be able to testify free from intimidation and fear. Usually a statute indicates the types of measures witnesses are entitled to. In trafficking in persons, sex crimes, or family crimes, and, where there are vulnerable victim-witnesses and minors, these measures are especially important in order to prevent re-victimization. Such measures are intended to limit exposure of the victim to further trauma, and, exposure to the public, media and the accused.

(a) Testimony behind a curtain or through a different room from the offender;

(b) Anonymous testimony;

(c) Presence of an accompanying person for psychological support;

(d) Use of a witness statement instead of in-court testimony;

(f) Removal of the defendant from the courtroom.

There are plenty of resources on victim safety and protection.

The American National Centre on Protection Orders and Full Faith Credit has a checklist for police officers on the enforcement of police orders. This checklist is divided into two sections: 1) situations that require immediate action, and 2) situations that require reducing risks of liability and lethality.

The UK Police Code of Practice for Victims of Crime informs victims of police duties to provide information, collect information or act as a point of contact between the victims and the social support services. These specific police duties include, among others, a duty to inform, duty to provide relevant documents, duty to conduct a needs assessment test, duty to record correspondences and statements from victim, and duty to notify the victim (about status of charge, court dates, etc.)

We are working to improve witness protection in Afghanistan. If you are a lawyer or an expert on this matter, do connect with us as we are keen on learning from you.

Do also visit the website of our partners in Afghanistan, Medica Afghanistan, who are pioneering instrumental work on witness and victim protection in Afghanistan.

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