IT is no surprise that over the past few months several witnesses in cases of sectarian murders and extortion being tried in Karachi’s anti-terrorism courts have turned hostile. Others have failed to show up in court. In the absence of a proper witness protection programme in the country, when faced with having to testify against hardened religious or political militants, it is understandable that people will not put their lives on the line, knowing the state will do nothing for their protection. Last year, Sindh’s home minister at the time had announced that a witness protection unit would be set up in the province. Yet the provincial government has taken no practical steps to set up such a unit. Moreover, judges and prosecutors connected to terrorism cases have expressed concern about the lack of security provided to them. And despite the fact that the Supreme Court had instructed the Sindh government last year to provide adequate security to anti-terrorism court judges, the provincial authorities have shown no inclination to act upon these orders. In the past judges have received death threats while some have been murdered.
As we have argued before, until there is an effective countrywide system in place that protects witnesses as well as judges and prosecutors, the legal battle against militants and terrorists cannot be won. It is also unsurprising that in an atmosphere where witnesses and judicial authorities can be openly threatened and intimidated, the conviction rate is appallingly low and notorious suspects often walk free. What is needed is a strong prosecution which builds cases on solid evidence, an effective witness protection programme to assure those who testify that their lives and those of their families will be protected, as well as courageous judges who can pass sentences without feeling threatened if terrorism suspects are to be brought to justice.