Oulanyah welcomes Witness protection law

Deputy Speaker Oulanyah welcomed the proposed new law on protection of witnesses which is being championed by the Uganda Law Reform Commission (ULRC).

Officials of the ULRC on April 27 appeared before Parliament’s Human Rights Committee to seek views from the legislators on how to improve the draft legislation.

Opening the  meeting, Oulanyah said that the law is long overdue and expressed optimism that it will be critical in restoring faith into Uganda’s justice system that has been marred with incidences of mob justice, when suspects are let off the hook due to wanting prosecution as a result of absence of witnesses.

“Any lawyer who practices and understands criminal law will understand this thing, for a case where the state is being cast in bad light… you need witnesses who are going to give credible evidence, they need to be assured of their protection. We don’t have this system, and that is a problem,” Oulanyah said.

Oulanyah said that if witnesses feel left alone, they may withhold critical evidence, just to protect their lives.

“There is now organized crime, drug related crimes – cartels, and [then the] war crimes… so these are the dangers and these dangers are real and we need to act on this quickly so that we keep the integrity of the cases that must succeed for them to succeed and we can only do this if we have the protection system that helps to be able to give evidence,” Oulanyah said.

The Witness Protection Bill was drafted following a study conducted in 2010 that showed that absence on legislation on witness protection was undermining credibility of Uganda’s justice system.

The Bill mainly focuses on the protection of witnesses of in proceedings who are in danger of a threat or have been threatened by suspects.

The proposed law suggests for the establishment of both a Witness Protection Agency and National Witness Protection Programme with a mandate of providing the framework and procedures for giving special protection on behalf of the state, to persons in possession of important information but are facing potential risk or intimidation due to their cooperation with prosecution.

With the new regulations in place, the Agency will acquire, store, maintain and control firearms and ammunition and electronic or necessary equipment to protect their witnesses.

The new law is proposing for the agency to be independent and have all the powers necessary or expedite for the performance of its functions without interference from any authority.

The Bill has also put provisions for handling of persons on witness protection program, in which the new law prohibits exposing witnesses in the press and it will be an offence to disclose the identity of a protected witness.

Modalities have also been put in place on how the witnesses will be protected in which the identity both facial and change in names will be allowed.

In Africa, only three countries namely, Kenya, South Africa and Seychelles have the witness protection programme, while outside the continent, United State of America, United Kingdom, Israel are among the nations with mechanisms to protect their witnesses.

Section 27 of the Bill seeks to establish the victims’ compensation fund and this will be used in incidences where witnesses have to be relocated to other parts of the country or the world.

The Director of the Agency will have the powers to state the criteria for admission into the witness programme and these will be based on the seriousness of the offence, nature and relevance of the evidence.

The bill provides for a memorandum of understanding on admission to the witness protection programme to be signed by the witness or a parent or guardian of the witness under the age of 18 years.

Nansana Municipality MP Robert Kasule said that with government freeze on creation of new agencies, ULRC needs to put up a strong justification on why we need to have an agency created for witness protection.

Kyadondo East MP Robert Kyagulanyi questioned the relevance of establishing a new agency yet there is already an existing witness protection mechanism.

“I wonder what the purpose of the Bill is since Police is mandated to protect witnesses and we have had incidences of more than one agency doing the same job, I wonder if it won’t be better to empower Police to continue doing that job or even better still to amend the Police Act other than having to create another agency considering the expense,” Kyagulanyi said.

However, Jackie Akuno, the ULRC Principal Legal Officer argued that given the freeze on creation of new agencies, the other option could be setting up a directorate in one of the existing ministries or agencies.

Jeroline Akubu, the ULRC assistant commissioner in charge of Law Reform said, there was still confusion on which ministry or agency the Witness Protection Agency should fall after it was discovered that Police can only offer protection during investigation stages, yet still, the Force is grappling with negative publicity that can affect the working of the agency.