Justice Minister Dr. Albert Kawana yesterday tabled new legislation aimed at ensuring that adequate legal measures are in place to protect witnesses and whistleblowers in Namibia.
The new legislation, called the Witness Protection Bill, is also expected to address the issue of reluctant witnesses who do not cooperate with the prosecution authorities.
Kawana, who tabled the Bill in the National Assembly yesterday, said the ministry consulted widely during the formulation of the bill, adding that a technical committee was established to undertake a study tour to a number of countries which run successful witness protection programmes. The team visited Canada, Ghana, Kenya and South Africa to learn best practices or benchmarking.
“Honourable Speaker, Honourable Members, Namibia must take adequate legislative measure so that in the event of such unfortunate terrorist action being experienced, we should not be found with our pants down so to speak. Witnesses must feel protected, and if need be together with their families it has been realized that currently, we have inadequate legislative measures aimed at witness protection. Witnesses in criminal proceedings are protected under the provisions of the Criminal Procedure Act of 1977,” said Kawana.
Unfortunately, said Kawana, the process is not voluntary.
“It is initiated where the Prosecutor-General feels that a particular person needs protection by reason of his or her being a witness in a criminal trial. The Prosecutor-General is required to apply for a court order to place the witness under protection. The witness has no say in the matter and he or she can even be placed under protection without his or her consent,” he said.
Kawana said one of the disadvantages of the current system is that in some cases, such witnesses tend to become hostile during the criminal trial which jeopardises the success of the prosecution.
“We had an experience where a female witness of more than thirty years of marriage could not identify her husband during the identification parade. Obviously, the case was lost because the perpetrator could not be positively identified.”
If adopted, the new law will give room for the establishment of a Directorate for Witness Protection.
“I must point out that staff members of the Directorate will consist of staff members who will be vetted by the Namibia Central Intelligence Service.
This is important because such staff members will be dealing with most sensitive information. Honourable Speaker, experience in other countries has shown that if staff members do not keep the information which comes their way during the cause of their functions, this is likely to expose protected witnesses to extreme danger,” he said, adding that there has been instances where some witnesses have been killed or injured, especially in cases involving terrorism, drug trafficking and high treason.
The directorate will be led by a director, witness protection officers, security officers and staff members seconded from offices, ministries and government agencies.
The Bill also makes provision for the creation of a Witness Protection Advisory Committee that will be tasked to make recommendations to the Minister regarding policy matters, including amendments to the Act and the making of regulations and issuing of directives.
The committee will also advise the Minister on the formulation of witness protection policies in accordance with the current and international best practices; to give advice to the Directorate generally on the performance of its functions and exercise of its powers; and to make recommendations to the Minister on the budgetary estimates of the Directorate.
A Witness Protection Fund will also be started if parliament adopts the Bill. The Fund will be capitalized through money appropriated by Parliament and made available to the Fund for the purposes of attaining the objects of the Directorate and the Programme.
“It is absolutely important, if we are to learn from the experience of other countries, that a fund is created. According to the experience of other countries, payments have to be made even at night to enable witnesses to be moved from one place to another for their own safety. For security reasons, they have to be moved by other means other than by transport which is used by the members of the public,” said Kawana.
He added: “In addition, food has to be bought for them as they cannot eat in public places. Although separate, the fund will be under the control and supervision of the Ministry of Justice. The accounting officer will be the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry. I must also point out, Honourable Members, that the Fund will be audited by the staff of the Auditor-General.”
He pointed out that all the auditors will be vetted. Lawmakers will start discussing the Bills next week.