MUCH has been said about the absence of an effective witness-protection programme in Pakistan. The fact that Haider Ali, the sixth and last witness to the murder of journalist Wali Khan Babar, was killed in Karachi on Nov 11 only underscores the immediate need for one. Reportedly, there were 23 witnesses to Mr Babar’s January 2011 killing in the metropolis. Only six took the risk of testifying. Each man was gunned down in a frighteningly systematic manner. Mr Ali, for whom the Sindh High Court had ordered extra protection, was shot dead despite being underground. Policemen have also numbered among the murdered witnesses. These killings expose the callousness of the state and its inability to protect witnesses; when it knew that the men were at risk of being eliminated, stronger efforts should have been made to protect them. Witnesses in other high-profile terrorism cases have been similarly killed. This creates a frustrating situation: when people are afraid for their lives they will not testify, which means suspected killers will walk free.
The Sindh information minister said on Friday that Rs10m would be given to the home department to provide protection to witnesses. While this amount, however meagre, is welcome, as it is expensive to relocate witnesses and give them new identities, funds are just one aspect of the issue. What is also required is direction and planning. The president has reportedly ordered the Sindh government to draft a new witness-protection law. Yet a clause for protecting witnesses exists in the Anti-Terrorism Act, 2007, so perhaps the main focus should be on strengthening this provision. Anti-terrorism experts suggest that a witness-protection programme should be implemented incrementally as local authorities lack the capacity to initiate a programme similar to what is being practised in developed nations. Initial steps can include making sure that witnesses get to court without their identities being disclosed, and in-camera trials have been proposed. Another suggestion is to give witnesses financial incentives, as presently they get nothing for risking their lives.
Meanwhile, the police must revise their standard operating procedures where the gathering, preservation and analysis of forensic evidence is concerned. A forensic lab exists in Lahore, so police investigators should be required to submit evidence to this facility, while similar facilities need to be built in other cities. Nitish Kumar, the chief minister of Bihar, recently told his counterparts in Sindh and Punjab that he controlled rampant crime in that Indian state through speedy trials, strong prosecution and taking action against suspects irrespective of their connections. Perhaps our officials should have been taking careful notes.