"When there is no witness protection framework, witnesses and victims are left exposed"
The government has launched new guidelines to protect witnesses to crimes and victims from threats.
The office of the Directorate of Public Prosecution (DPP), partnered with the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), to strengthen the protection of such persons.
The two books including 'Victims’ Rights and Empowerment Guideline, and Witness Protection Guidelines' were launched, aimed at assisting prosecutors to determine the witness protection parameters.
Officiating at the launch of the guidelines at Imperial Royale Hotel in Kampala on Friday, the DPP Mike Chibita emphasised the need to protect the witnesses and victims to ensure fair justice.
“No accused person will be happy to have anyone testifying against them. They will always do something to kill evidence. That is why we need an enabling environment to protect witnesses and victims from intimidation and any form of physical harm,” Chibita said.
He observed that when there is no witness protection framework, witnesses and victims are left exposed.
Chibita cited a case where the DPP had to have a standby vehicle to drive the witnesses to the airport to fly out of the country after testifying in court.
“We are only struggling with inadequate resources to protect these witnesses. That is why we need a law on witness protection on a case to case basis,” he stated.
Chibita explained that the guidelines will help to put standard procedures on how to deal with witnesses and victims without being threatened.
“In the course of executing our mandate, we interact with victims of crime who double as witnesses. These victims suffer physically, mentally, emotionally, economically and are substantially denied their fundamental rights,” he explained.
He remarked that there is no enabling law to protect witnesses. The DPP however, referred to the UN convention against corruption, and transnational organised crime, as a guide used by Uganda.
Chibita also cited the Rome Statute domesticated as the International Criminal Court Act, which mandates states to put in place mechanisms to ensure witness safety.
He stressed that in the current setting of Uganda's national witness protection framework, witnesses have no security assurance and always fear to testify in courts of laws.
“This, in turn, hinders access to justice, fair trial and accountability for human rights violations combating impunity,” he said.
Chibita said his office put in place a number of measures to ensure it operates under the victim-centred approach and also had made an attempt towards protecting victims of crime.
The measures include the creation of a fully-fledged department of witness protection and victim empowerment, which also among others, receives and addresses complaints or concerns raised by the public regarding criminal proceedings.
Chibita said having realised the need to emphasise a victim-centred approach to efficiently and effectively execute its mandate, they did a study to review the assistance of victims.
Among these were programmes and complaints handling mechanism in the DPP with support from OHCHR, which led into development and adoption of standard guidelines for prosecutors.
The guidelines were also designed to put in place a standard procedure to handle the victims of crime and to assist prosecutors to appreciate the notion of the victims’ rights during investigations, at trial and after trial.
Chibita encouraged law enforcement officers, representatives of the government, heads of missions, Civil Society Organisations and the general public, to advocate for the witness protection law to be passed.
In his message delivered by the deputy solicitor general, Christopher Gashirabake, justice and constitutional affairs minister, Maj. Gen. Kahinda Otafiire, hailed such guidelines as crucial in the dispensation of justice.
"This is a progressive approach by the DPP towards involving victims as active participants in the justice process," Otafiire said.
The minister stated that the proper functioning of the justice system depends on the willingness of the victim to report crime and availability to provide evidence.
"It is the duty of the state to prove the case of the accused persons beyond a reasonable doubt. To deter that burden, it must adduce evidence admissible in law and to do that, witnesses are required,” he added.
He stressed that protecting witnesses from intimidation or harm, is key to the integrity, credibility, and success of the judicial process and fights against impunity.
Otafiire said witness protection ensures that evidence already collected by the state, is not destroyed, tampered with or lost.
He said among the people to be protected include; prosecutors, experts, friends and family of victims, informants, victims and witnesses and judicial officers, among others.
Otafire said though there is no law protecting witnesses, Ugandan institutions like the Police, the Judiciary and the DPP among others have been applying ad-hoc mechanisms to protect witnesses including; providing security and ensuring confidentiality; “by removing identifying information of witnesses and this mechanism was used in 2010 terror case in the criminal division.”
Otafiire commended the recently introduced video link in courts saying it also protects witnesses since only lawyers, judicial officials and witnesses will be physically in the courts of law.
He explained that the witness protection bill is still under consultation with relevant stakeholders to ensure the process is comprehensive and that it covers all issues of concern.
The OHCHR country representative, Robert Kotchani, said victims and witnesses are key to the criminal justice system.
“Victims and witnesses at times are reluctant to give information in fear of their security. That is why these guidelines,” he added.