Witness Protection Authority: Still faltering after three years | Sunday Observer

Witness Protection Authority: Still faltering after three years

Earlier this month, a member of the National Freedom Front led by Wimal Weerawansa, held a press conference in which he criticised the Government for attempting to arrest war-time Navy Commander, Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda.

At the press briefing, telecast widely across several electronic media networks, the NFF politico named several key witnesses in the Navy Abductions case, many of them Navy officers who had agreed to give evidence against senior officials of the Sri Lanka Navy implicated in the alleged racket. They were called traitors and accused of providing evidence to the CID against Navy officers in return for incentives.

The press conference was a classic case of witness intimidation, and infinitely dangerous because many of the witnesses are still serving in the Navy.

Yet there was no censure of this politician from any quarter, least of all from the National Authority tasked with the protection of victims and witnesses, and part of whose mandate is to ‘make aware of rights and entitlements of victims of crime and witnesses’ and to ‘issue guidelines and supervise’.

National Authority

Established in 2016, Sri Lanka’s National Authority for the Protection of Victims of Crimes and Witnesses has remained almost elusive since then. With no presence of its own on the web, it is the Ministry of Justice website which provides an address to the Protection Office, on Denzil Kobbekaduwa Mawatha, Battaramulla. A hotline for the office it yet to be introduced.

However, the offices of the Authority set up to protect victims of Crimes and Witnesses is lost among the more prominent government institutions in the area. Located down a small lane, just off the main road, no signboard on top of the by road tells the way to a person in search of the office in the hope of finding relief.

Located on the first floor of an uninviting and almost empty building of the Ministry of Justice, it is only the signage at the entrance that indicates the presence of the Protection Authority on its premises. But after a journey of discovery, a person who finally makes it to the first floor is greeted by closed doors and a lack of reception facilities to provide information.

But its lack of public presence is only the tip of the problems and obstacles faced by the independent body since its inception. A host of issues has resulted in victims of crime and witnesses losing confidence in the Authority and its ability to protect them from harm.

On December 27, 2018 Journalist Kasun Pussawela who is also a witness in the Welikada prison massacre case was forced to lodge a complaint with the Protection Authority after receiving multiple threats from a main suspect in the case. According to Pussawela’s complaint to the authority IP Neomal Rangajeewa, formerly of the Police Narcotics Bureau (PNB) had continued to make threatening statements against him on social media. However, since then, Pussawela says he only recevied a letter from the Authority which claimed that the possible threat against him is being analysed. According to him, the process is too time consuming. “Anything could happen to me in the meantime,” he said questioning the purpose of what he perceived as an inactive Authority.

Other agencies have been forced to step in to protect witnesses in high profile criminal investigations, when they have often come under brazen attacks by suspects in the same cases. The Navy abduction for ransom racket – a CID led probe that has been gathering steam over the past year or so, is one key case in which witnesses have been subject to serious intimidation, assault and harassment.

Six people

According to the South Asian Center for Legal Studies (SACLS) the Authority has provided protection to six people in the past three years.

The Director General of the Authority, Udaya Kumara Amarasinghe says that the Authority does take every complaint into consideration. “We conduct a threat analysis after we receive a complaint” he said adding that, however, some complaints have been found to be false. Explaining that a threat analysis takes time due to its technical nature, Amarasinghe admits there may be some delays as a result. “It cannot be done in a day or two,” he said clarifying that on receiving a complaint it is referred to the Police Protection Division of the Authority.

According to the Director General, if the division is unable to conduct a threat analysis it is then referred to specialised divisions in the Police. “They in turn provide us with a threat analysis” he said.

Amarasinghe said that the lack of expertise on the part of the Police on the ground level can result in delays as well. According to him, if the victim feels there is a delay and he is in imminent danger then he may file another appeal and the Board will take it into consideration when its members meet fortnightly.

A key witness in the Navy abductions case, where a group of Naval officers are accused of abducting 11 youth for ransom, Lieutenant Commander Krishan Welagedara had lodged another complaint with the Human Rights Commission on the harassment faced by him for being a witness in the case. He was named and shamed publicly by a right wing politician who branded the Naval officer as a traitor.

According to authoritative sources, Welegedara had opted not to hand over a complaint to the National Authority for the Protection of Victims of Crimes and Witnesses on the matter as he was left disappointed on a previous occasion. Having complained to both agencies on the intimidation faced by him, it was the HRCSL that had come to his rescue by using its suo moto powers to provide him with security. Many other witnesses who were intimidated also expressed similar views regarding the Agency formed to assist them.

Amarasinghe said that unless the victim of intimidation himself lodges a complaint the Authority is unable to take any action against threats made publicly or otherwise. “Though we can clearly see this is an act of intimidation unless the person named lodges a complaint we have no provision to act” he said.

According to him, despite discussing such incidents with the Board of Members their main concern is even if the law provided provisions to take action, the refusal of the victim to pursue or be part of the inquiry would then lead to its collapse. “How do we then take it forward from that point on?” he said.

Obstacles

Though it has been two years since the formation of the Authority, it also continues to face a number of obstacles including staff shortages, lack of experts and office space leading to the constant delays.

Dr. Isabelle Lassee, Head of Programs at the South Asian Center for Legal Studies points out that the Authority has issues beyond mere inefficiency and delays. Dr Lassee said there were more serious concerns regarding the authority. In a research report compiled by SACLS, she notes that there is an inadequate enforcement of powers by the Authority. According to the report the lack of institutional independence and adequate expertise also appears to be a major flaw.

Dr Lassee said the competence of the framework currently in place is problematic and is a major concern. “There are also issues of the independence of theAuthority and the Police division” she said. Currently five members to the Authority are appointed by the President while many are often ex officio members which not only raises the question of independence but also whether they have the expertise and background in witness protection.

With the Police sometimes being the instigators of intimidation against victims of crime and witnesses, Dr Lassee questions if a proper vetting place is in place to weed out possible cops who may have been perpetrators of torture or harassment. With no provision to separate the unit from the regular police cadre, she said this is a problematic situation. “Therefore there is an issue in the entry point to the Victims and Witness Protection itself” she said.

Mandate

Dr Lassee noted that the mandate of the Authority allows it to review all processes and procedural mechanisms so that they can take a more proactive approach to witness protection while coming up with recommendations taking into account all institutions and entry points to the system.

“This is within their mandate but they may need prior expertise in the area,” she said, adding that it is up to the authority to take charge and spearhead the process. Dr Lassee said since the enactment of the law not much appears to have happened despite the claims. Recommendations by global organisations have not been followed up, she alleges. But her main grouse appears to be the lacklustre interest in the revision of the law. “In 2017 August the Ministry of Justice called for public recommendations to make much needed revisions of the law,” she said adding that however, since then, there has been no progress in this regard. According to her, the call itself acknowledges that the Government itself understood the deficiencies in the law and, therefore, sought to reform it. “Nothing is known of its progress but it must be pursued urgently” she said.

Three years after it was set up, the main focus of the Victim and Witness Protection Authority remains ‘training’ for all Government agencies involved in the process.

Amarasinghe said the Authority’s main concern has been to provide training for those who deal with victims of crime and witnesses. The Authority has played a role in training for the police, JMOs and the lawyers, the Director General said.

“Our second step is to create awareness among the public” he said adding that despite the criticism the Authority has made headway during the past two years.

Former Solicitor General Suhada Gamlath, who heads the Board of Management of the National Victim and Witness Protection Authority was contacted for his views on recommendations for amendments to the Witness Protection Act and complaints about the efficiency of the Authority, but declined to comment. 

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