Basic witness protection essential to fight criminals -lawyers
Stabroek News
July 4, 2004

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The life of death squad whistle-blower George Bacchus might have been spared if there had been even a basic form of witness protection in place. However, observers doubt how safe such a system could be in such a small country where secrets seem hard to keep.

Despite the obstacles, attorney Vic Puran says the Guyana must "have some mechanisms or the powerful will run roughshod over the country." Bacchus was supposed to have testified in the preliminary trial of the three men charged for his brother's murder.

But he was murdered in his bed in a plot that allegedly involved the spouse of one of the three men.

Debbie Reynolds and a handyman were charged with his murder on Friday.

Bacchus had made headlines at the start of the year when he claimed to have been the ex-informant for a death squad responsible for the murder of almost forty men. Other persons had claimed to have information on the killings as well, but witnesses may be reluctant to come forward after the death of Bacchus.

Police Commissioner Winston Felix is on record as saying that the society is too small to support such a programme.

On Friday, President Bharrat Jagdeo repeated the same argument, though he did acknowledge its importance.

Most first world countries have witness protection schemes and they exist even in some third world countries, including Trinidad and Tobago.

Who might run a programme?

Attorney Anil Nandlall believes a witness protection programme is an integral adjunct to the administration of justice. But he notes that there are several peculiarities that afflict Guyana, which may make the development of such a programme impossible.

The first, he says, is finance, since protection programmes are an expensive undertaking.

Nandlall also considers that secrecy and confidentiality are the foundation upon which such protection programmes rest.

He said as a result of the small population and the fact that "everyone knows everyone in Guyana," confidentiality and secrecy would be extremely difficult to maintain.

But notwithstanding these factors, his main argument against the development of a witness protection programme is the question of which agency would be responsible for it.

"Who will administer this programme?" he asks, while pointing out that in most countries witness protection falls under the control of the police.

"[But] in Guyana, unfortunately, people do not trust the police...

In fact, many will argue that it is from the very police that witnesses may need protection," he adds.

He explains that it is widely believed that the police force is unprofessional and its members engaged in all types of activities which they ought not to be doing. He says whether these fears, suspicions and apprehensions are misplaced and unfounded is not relevant, but that in reality they exist.

In this context, Nandlall considers that a national witness protection programme may have to be administered by an agency other than the police force.

He said this would necessitate new legislation which would have to invest in these persons the police powers of arrest, detention, seizure and even the right to use force or deadly force if there were circumstances that warranted it.

Though he does not consider such a programme viable, he suggests that the Guyana Defence Force (GDF) can be a pool from which the persons for a protection operation can be recruited. He says their training and special knowledge of the hinterland regions, which can potentially be safe havens for witnesses, are valuable assets which should be exploited.

But attorney Vic Puran thinks that GDF personnel would have the same potential for corruption as policemen in such a scenario.

He thinks developing a protection programme is a viable option given that witness protection ranges from the basic to more sophisticated models that are used in first world countries such the United States.

Protection prior to testimony key

He notes that the current law of the country does view interfering with witnesses as an offence. And at the other end of the spectrum there is the US model, which includes witness relocation programmes that involve creating a new identity for the witness.

He agrees that developing a programme of such a scale is impossible given the small size of the population, but thinks a compromise can be reached between the two extremes.

"If the government takes the position that it is not possible, it puts a premium on the killing of the witnesses. The US programme is not the only form of witness protection... it is doable." he says.

Puran was of the view that the protection of the witnesses before they testify would be the core of a scheme in the Guyana context.

In the US, witnesses in high-profile organised crime cases have been killed after their testimony.

Puran explains that on the local scene, most criminal enterprises end once the guilty person is locked up. But he says any programme should be able to evolve to cater for scenarios, like the ones that exist in the US.

But Puran also argues that before the state offers protection, the evidence should be cogent and compelling to guarantee a conviction.

Though he concedes the public apprehension about the police, he says there is no viable alternative to administer the programme. "Sometimes we tend to miss the fact that there are still people with integrity in the police force... There is a considerable body of decent people in the police force."

He notes as well that there is a lot of public confidence in the judgement of the current commissioner and he believes this can be transferred to other officers as well.

Puran was asked about the feasibility of a regional programme, rather than a national one.

He says the society does not have the luxury of the time to develop such a programme since criminal activities in Guyana are assuming what he described as "corporate powers." "It is an enterprise that has become a business. It is no longer a person stealing for the fulfilment of a desperate need. Crime has become a business. And you need to put in place protection for witnesses, who can help to curb the growth."

Puran believes that there are witnesses to crimes who want to come forward, but are afraid because there are no mechanisms to protect them.

He cites the recent case where 120 kilogrammes of cocaine, valued at approximately, 8 million pounds sterling, was shipped from Guyana to the United Kingdom.

There have been charges overseas, but no arrests locally.

The death squad allegations are also a classic example, he says. In this instance, he believes that given the number of people who were killed extra-judicially, sheer probability suggests that there are a number of witnesses.

He thinks persons must have seen the abductions, the killings or the dumping of the bodies. But no one has come forward save for Bacchus, who was killed.

Puran thinks that in his case, the state ought to have given him protection and that the commissioner acted inappropriately by suggesting otherwise.

"But surely, if the police learn that a person has information available, they have a duty to go after it and collect it," he notes. Puran also says that protection must be provided for members of the judiciary as well as prosecutors.

"The whole issue of witness protection is geared to bring criminals to justice. Therefore, players at other levels... they must also be protected. All of which is doable."

Last week human rights body Amnesty International said the murder of Bacchus demonstrated the urgent need for a comprehensive witness protection scheme.

"Since allegations of the existence of a death squad in Guyana surfaced six months ago, Amnesty International has repeatedly urged Guyanese authorities to take action to protect individuals involved in investigations regarding murder, disappearance or other crimes," it said in a statement.

AI had also said that the authorities must protect members of the judiciary, lawyers, witnesses, victims' relatives, journalists, police officers and human rights defenders against all forms of intimidation.