Pakistan News

Trials in terrorism cases suffer due to lack of witness protection

KARACHI: Trials in various terrorism-related cases suffer delays as witnesses for the prosecution remain reluctant to testify due to the authorities’ failure to implement the witness protection law enacted in 2017, it emerged on Saturday.

An antiterrorism court is legally bound to decide a case within seven days after indictment under the concept of swift trials envisaged in the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA), 1997.

According to Section 19 (7) of the ATA, the court shall, on taking cognizance of a case, proceed with the trial on a day-to-day basis and shall decide it within seven days, failing which an application may be made to the administrative judge of the high court concerned for appropriate directions for an expeditious disposal of the case.

It is mentioned in Section 13 (2) of the ATA that one case at a time shall be assigned to a court. However, if for some reason a given case cannot be proceeded with, more than one case may be assigned to it to save time.

1,700 cases pending with ATCs 

According to figures compiled by prosecution and judicial sources, by the end of November 2019 there were around 1,700 cases pending trial before the 42 ATCs, including 33 permanent ones, functioning in the province.

Of the 33 permanent ATCs, 20 are in Karachi, three in Hyderabad, two in Sukkur and one each in Mirpurkhas, Shaheed Benazirabad, Naushahro Feroze, Shikarpur, Kashmore/Kandhkot, Larkana, Khairpur and Ghotki.

In 2019, the ATCs’ conviction rate stood at a mere 17pc

The statistics further showed that the ATCs disposed of around 2,243 cases until November last and nearly 1,457 new cases were filed during the same period.

The ATCs convicted and handed down sentences to accused in 386 cases during the same period.

The conviction rate stood at around 17 per cent.

Similarly, the ATCs acquitted accused persons in around 1,857 cases during the same period, as the prosecution failed to prove its case against them. The acquittal rate remained around 82pc.

 Lack of protection for witnesses 

Commenting on the matter, the sources said witnesses lacked confidence to come forward to testify against criminals in courts of law.

They said that there was a deepening sense of insecurity among the witnesses, who were increasingly avoiding testifying against hardened criminals in high-profile terrorism cases.

Citing example of a case pertained to a suicide attack on the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sehwan in which around 80 people were killed and over 350 others wounded, the sources said that the trial court had recently ordered the home secretary and inspector general of police to explain implementation of the Witness Protection, Security and Benefit Act, 2017 in the province.

The judge of the ATC-XVI, who is conducting the trial of two alleged facilitators affiliated with the militant Islamic State group, took serious exception to the issue of witnesses’ protection and on Dec 20, 2019 directed the police to provide protection to two prosecution witnesses, Ali Hassan and Syed Mohammad Shah, who apprehended threats to their lives and sought protection so that they could testify in court.

However, the investigating officer filed a compliance report, which only mentioned that the DIG-CTD had corresponded with a Shikarpur SHO for providing security to the witnesses, but it was silent as to whether or not any security was provided to them.

“It has been observed by this court in number of cases including case of murder of Advocate Naimatullah Randhawa that the eyewitnesses (private) have hidden themselves due to the fear of demon of terrorism,” the judge observed.

The judge added: “The public has become too frightened to assist the system fighting against terrorism, which is adding bad name to the country, adversely affecting the law and order situation, welfare of the people, tourism, foreign investment, economy of the country etc.”

The judge noted that fighting against terrorism needed revolutionary steps at a warlike level and that no war could be won without the support and active participation of the public in general.

The judge remarked that while protection and security of the witnesses was of paramount importance in fighting terrorism, it did not seem to be at the top priority of the authorities.

“Witnesses are not being provided protection and security not to talk of promotion and projection of the witnesses despite enactment of Witnesses Protection and Benefit Act 2017 in which Section 4 about Witness Protection Programme also provides for new identity, accommodation, reasonable financial assistance of witnesses compensation in case of harm to witnesses,” the judge wrote in his order.

The court had directed the home secretary and IGP to depute any focal person for filing their comments/report in terms of the implementation of the Witness Protection, Security and Benefit Act, 2017 in the province of Sindh in letter and spirit with recommendation, if any, for making the law more effective.

In addition, the court also asked the home secretary to explain as to whether or not any compensation to the victims and/or their family members of the incident of the Sehwan blast was provided by the government.

The home secretary was also asked whether or not there was a mechanism of providing compensation/grant to terrorism victims and whether there was any enactment on this issue in Sindh on the pattern of Balochistan and Punjab, where a law — the Civilian Victims of Terrorism (Relief and Rehabilitation) — had been enacted in 2014 and 2016, respectively.

Sindh Prosecutor General Dr Faiz Shah was not available to comment on the issue.

Published in Dawn, January 26th, 2020

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