Protection for victims and witnesses is a must for due process of law

Thursday, 6 April 2023 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The Government has published a new Assistance to and Protection of Victims of Crime and Witnesses Act that seeks to close the loopholes in the existing law and widen the scope of protection for concerned individuals. The new law, once enacted, will replace the 2015 Act, which was hailed as a big step for the protection of witnesses and victims of crime but failed to live up to expectations. 

The National Authority for the Protection of Victims of Crime and Witnesses established under the law remained bogged down with administrative and financial problems with only a handful of victims and witnesses placed under protection after more than 10 years of the Authority being in operation.

The new law published in the gazette by Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe makes specific provision to enable victims of crime and witnesses to testify through audio-visual means as well as to recognise and implement international best practices relating to assistance and protection of victims of crime and witnesses, both of which were in the previous bill but this improves on these provisions.

The draft bill also introduces protection for those who fall victim to organised criminal groups and lists 43 offences in relation to which protection to victims of crime and witnesses should be provided.

It is a fact that convicting criminals, especially those with political connections or big money is notoriously difficult in the country. It is not only victims and witnesses who have been threatened and intimidated but members of the judiciary have been put under duress in high profile cases while instances of police personnel being offered various inducements to fix cases have become commonplace.

The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) appointed soon after the defeat of the LTTE faced the tough task of ensuring that the identity of witnesses who came before it were protected. Many spoke in camera and kept their identities anonymous for fear that they would face threats or even worse due to their disclosures. Civilians who witnessed the horrors of the last days of hostilities in 2009 who fled the country have given evidence before various investigating bodies but few have come forward to do the same before any commission appointed by the Sri Lanka Government or before a court fearing for their lives.

This is also the case with regard to victims or witnesses of other serious crimes such as murder, rape or gang related violence. In the case of the murder of British national Khurram Shaikh and rape of his girlfriend, for which the then Chairman of the Tangalle Pradeshiya Sabha Sampath Widanapathirana was convicted, there were threats against the witnesses who had to flee the country after recording their statements. A conviction was only possible because a few witnesses braved these threats and came forward.

Victims and witnesses have faced threats, intimidation and have even been bribed to stop them from giving testimony in court so that the offenders can get off – without a conviction. In cases of rape and child abuse, with little protection from the State, victims are forced to retract their evidence or go into hiding fearing for their lives and the lives of their loved ones. This is why any Assistance to and Protection of Victims of Crime and Witnesses law must be able to provide the necessary assistance and protection to those most vulnerable in society who are also the ones who are most unlikely to get the due equality before the law.

Eventually, any good law is only as good as those in charge of implementing it. The onus is on the Justice Ministry to ensure that the new law also doesn’t become just another addition to the country’s law books but is put in the hands of efficient, dedicated and courageous public officials so that victims and witnesses can come forward without fear and due punishment can be meted out to criminals.