Govt. seeks to strengthen witness protection

Govt. seeks to strengthen witness protection
Minister of National Security Marvin Dames. (FILE PHOTO)

The government is hoping to pass an amendment to the Criminal Evidence Witness Anonymity Act, in an effort to add further protection for witnesses who choose to testify in serious court matters.

Parliamentarians began debate on a bill to amend the act in the Lower Chamber Wednesday.

“I have met with investigators to discuss legislation and the amendments,” noted Member of Parliament (MP) for Mount Moriah and Minister of National Security Marvin Dames.

“Many echoed the fact that we are living in a different time where communities are ravaged with violence. We live in an era of intimidation where criminals intimidate witnesses from using their constitutional right of free speech. We now have an obligation to act to protect those persons who choose to stand up against violence.

“We cannot and must not allow these criminals to succeed.”

The amendment to the current law will provide witnesses the option to take the stand with full anonymity – preventing the prosecution, defense, jurors and the accused, from seeing the witness and hearing the witness’ natural voice.

Only a magistrate or judge will be able to have access to the witness.

Dames revealed statistics which indicate that the current anonymity order has been applied to 80 cases since 2015 and noted that more than half of those cases showed evidence of tampering.

He said, “We must strengthen this legislation to not only protect the brave witnesses in these cases, but also family members and friends of witnesses. Police will tell you that witnesses are more comfortable with assisting with crimes when an anonymity order is in place.”

MP for Carmichael and Minister of Works Desmond Bannister, also stood in support of the amendment.

“After exposing themselves as witnesses, they have to go back into their communities,” explained Bannister.

“So, we can see why in this day and age – in these types of serious cases, why it can be frightening for witnesses to come forward without knowing they have an option of full protection. We have brought this amendment for approval by Parliament, and hope all will support it.”

Opposition Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) Leader and MP for Rum Cay, Cat Island and San Salvador Philip Davis, supported the idea of ensuring that witnesses receive enhanced protection after taking the stand.

He cautioned however, the government to consider that the amendment will also possibly infringe on the rights of offenders who, by law, are entitled to a fair trial.

“The demeanor of witnesses is very important, particularly when you are talking about witnesses in serious criminal matters. To take away an accused person’s right to be able to see the person who is accusing him from having done something, is really taking it to another level,” said Davis.

He suggested the government seek to strengthen the witness protection program as opposed to amending the current law.

“I have always been in favor of strengthening the witness protection program. It is a costly exercise, but it’s a better route,” he said.

“Let the witness take the stand and if after having testified they feel unsafe, then they should be put into the witness protection program because, I really think we will have challenges with constitutional provisions, in order to sustain and justify that witnesses should remain anonymous.”

Dames insisted however, the amendment is not an infringement of civil liberties, but instead a means to tackle serious crime in the country.