Witness protection project
June 27, 2004
AMNESTY International is simply doing its job, which it normally does well, in calling for a witness protection programme in Guyana following the murder of George Bacchus in the early hours of Thursday morning.
But AI would know that this is easier called for than to establish with appropriate and effective mechanisms and safeguards here and in other countries of the Caribbean Community afflicted by killings and serious crimes.
The people of Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, for instance, would themselves be aware of the need for a witness protection programme, given the instances of sudden disappearance or murder of key witnesses in criminal cases before the courts.
Such was the outrage in Trinidad and Tobago over threats to witnesses, police, magistrates and judges at a period of sensational court cases involving narco-trafficking, that the then United National Congress administration took the initiative to engage CARICOM in consideration of a region-wide criminal justice protection programme.
Interest in such a project deepened sufficiently for the issue to be taken up at the historic 1997 summit meeting in Barbados between then U.S. President Bill Clinton and Heads of Government of the Caribbean.
Unfortunately, although the creation of a criminal justice protection programme formed part of what emerged as the "Bridgetown Accord" from that summit, it remains a project yet to be seriously pursued collectively by the Caribbean Community.
Guyana and other member states of CARICOM may have ideas on how to approach such a project. But it must be appreciated that for it to be really effective, especially in these days of growing trans-border crimes and expanding criminal networks, it is certainly desirable for it to be done together.
This does not excuse any administration of the community, including Guyana, from demonstrating greater vigilance in ensuring the protection of key witnesses in court cases or, indeed trial magistrates and judges.
All of them and others would, of course, have an obligation to first indicate to the authorities the specific problems they face and to formally request protection.
In the particular case involving the murder of George Bacchus, the Guyanese people have been reminded by Police Commissioner Winston Felix that for the Police Force to provide protection it must be at the request of the individual who wants such protection.
"We cannot", stressed the Commissioner, "enforce protection on someone who doesn't want it and if he wants it, he/she must seek it in the correct manner..."
We think this is quite a reasonable position.