June 27, 2004
Before we jump head first into a debate about the need for witness protection programmes in Guyana, words of caution need to be employed. Firstly, witness protection programmes are not easy to put together, especially in countries like Guyana.
Secondly, they are expensive. Often it is not just one or two witnesses who are due to testify in a trial who must be protected. Experience with witness protection programmes often reveals that entire families would need to be shielded from being compromised. Extended witness protection programmes cause disruptions to the lives of entire families and therefore, the question of determining whether to accede to a request for witness protection is not a simple decision. Any agency that assumes responsibility for the protection of a witness, must be fully aware of the dire consequences should its protective cordon be penetrated.
Such an eventuality will destroy the very credibility of the programme. Therefore, one should not simply jump headlong into the establishment of such a programme unless one is sure that the protection to be offered is impervious.
Witness protection programmes are costly. Often, the costs associated with running these programmes are criticised by politicians as placing an undue burden on taxpayers. In one case, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police used witness protection money to help pay off the child support arrears of a witness. Not only was money used to settle the arrears but also a lawyer was hired on taxpayerís funds to try to have the arrears waved. In the end the taxpayers lost because the witness never testified.
Guyana is too poor a country to have an extensive witness protection programme. We hardly have sufficient funds to pay our police officers, much less to invest in a witness protection programme. In addition, certain types of witness protection require keeping witnesses in safe houses and hidden, something that is not easy in small societies.
But the real form of protection that is often required in major cases sometimes involves a witness being given a new identity and provided with resources to start a new life. In a small society like ours, this is simply too monumental a challenge. Those who think that it would be easy to ask third countries to accept witnesses are simply not aware of the difficulties in finalising third country arrangements.
If the deposed President of Haiti, Jean Bertrand Aristide, took such a long time to be given political asylum, imagine how more difficult it would be to provide witnesses with new identifies and new homes.
The death of self-confessed phantom informer, George Bacchus, has raised a noise as to why he was not given protection. Bacchus was the man at the centre of allegations that the Minister of Home Affairs was involved in a death squad, which put paid to the deeds of wanted criminals. His brother was shot in January of this year and three men have been charged and placed before the courts. Bacchus was expected to testify against the men whom he claimed killed his brother.
Interestingly, at no time during the trial were there any calls for Bacchus to be placed in protective custody. Bacchus had held centre stage in the eyes of the public more for his allegations against the Minister than over the trial of the men charged with the murder of his brother.
Now that Bacchus himself has been killed, there have been concerns expressed as to why he was not protected. The Commissioner of Police indicated at his press conference that Bacchus did not ask for protection, and that it is difficult to see how the police or any agency can enforce protection on an unwilling witness without violating that personís rights.
Witness protection was also touted as a condition for witnesses likely to require such protection who are to appear before the presidential commission of inquiry. While there may be legitimacy to such concerns, the context within which witness protection, if offered, should be considered.