The Witness Protection and Management Bill, 2020, pending before the 9th Senate, is one of the most impactful pieces of legislation in the National Assembly. It aims to create an effective procedure to protect individuals who give credible information to law enforcement officials in order to facilitate the investigation, arrest or subsequent prosecution of corrupt persons or those involved in organized crimes and high impact like trafficking in hard drugs, smuggling of assault weapons, human trafficking. , and money laundering.
The Witness Protection Bill is high on the legislative agenda of the Senate Anti-Corruption and Financial Crimes Committee, led by Senator Abdul Kwari (Kaduna North). According to its explanatory memorandum, the bill is intended to provide adequate security to witnesses, “to ensure that the proper administration of justice in criminal and related proceedings is not compromised by the refusal of witnesses to testify, (due to of) fear of violence, serious injury, death or for other reasons.
The importance of witness protection in high-stakes criminal proceedings cannot be overstated. To crack a Mafia-style crime syndicate, law enforcement agents need to get credible information. In most cases, this information can only come from a mob member who sees reason to yell at fellow criminals, or a victim of crime seeking legal redress.
But there’s a catch for anyone who wants to sing or spill the wick, leading to the arrest of a mob boss, or who wants to testify in court against a member of a highly organized crime syndicate. Mafia members are known to be ruthless and ruthless, which is what they need to thrive in equally deadly underworld activities, like illicit drug trafficking; smuggling of assault weapons; human trafficking; terrorism; and all kinds of corrupt practices, whether within a nation or across borders. It is believed that shouting at organized crime gangs is a dangerous road to travel.
Fear of reprisals from gang members has prevented many people from cooperating with law enforcement when investigating or prosecuting high-risk criminal suspects.
Recognizing that this is a real brake on the global war against organized crime and corrupt practices, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), established in 1997, has committed to huge resources to get member countries to establish specific programs to protect forensic witnesses in the judiciary. their respective jurisdictions. Completion of work on the bill in question, by Senator Abdul Kwari’s committee, and subsequent presidential assent to it, will admit Nigeria into the elite group of about 15 countries that have implemented place comprehensive witness protection safeguards.
According to the UNODC, the establishment of these safety nets “would allow a witness to testify in a judicial setting or cooperate in a law enforcement investigation, with fear or threat of intimidation or reprisals”. Such protection, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “is essential to maintaining the rule of law” within national jurisdictions and beyond.
When an effective witness protection procedure is in place, it is expected to help resuscitate the Federal Department of Finance’s whistleblower policy, which appears to have fizzled. The policy had created a rewards scheme as an incentive for people who provide leaks leading to the recovery of witchcraft proceeds. But the nation lacked a legal framework to guarantee the safety of those who spoke out, which could have contributed to the spectacular failure of the policy.
Witness protection cases can be as simple as providing an armed escort to and from the courtroom, or keeping the witness in a separate waiting room. It can also become more complex, in the case of high-profile criminal trials. Court premises or related trial locations could be sealed off from public access during a hearing, and information disclosed by the witness in court could be classified and kept secret.
The protected witness could have their voice or face disguised to provide confidentiality that completely shields them from public view and recognition. Thanks to advances in technology, an at-risk witness can be brought in to testify virtually, via videoconference, from a safe hiding place. It is important to add that videoconferencing has been upheld by trial courts in the United States, to comply with criminal justice procedures.
After testifying credibly in court, the witness facing or fearing danger could be subject to home and workplace security surveillance. In an extreme scenario, a witness could be moved, either internally or overseas.
Interestingly, the bill before the Abdul Kwari committee provides for the extreme form of witness protection, i.e. the relocation of a witness at risk to another part of the country, or to another country all together. He could be assigned a new identity, accompanied by valid identity documents compatible with his new protective status.
According to the Italian witness protection system, a collaborator of justice is most likely to need additional protection. This is about someone who had been a key player in organized crime and was himself the subject of criminal charges, but who agrees to cooperate with law enforcement by giving the information necessary to solve the problem. case and have his former comrades convicted of mafia-type crimes. It’s clear that gang members won’t deal kindly with a collaborator of justice if they ever had the chance to bond with him after his betrayal.
A witness who has been the victim of a high-impact crime or who has been an eyewitness to a crime and testifies at trial, thereby exposing themselves to serious and imminent harm, also deserves protection. A recent UNODC audit showed that only 14 of the 43 countries that are signatories to the international witness protection protocol have the highest form of protection in place. These nations had, at one time or another, disguised a witness and transferred them to a different environment within their jurisdiction, or to another country entirely, to ensure their safety and comfort after cooperating with the investigation or testified in the prosecution of senior officials. -have an impact on criminal activities.
Examples abound around the world, to support the fact that the witness protection program helps governments to bust coded criminal networks and to catch, prosecute and adequately punish gangsters in accordance with the laws in force. A notable case study was that of the Mountain Boys who once ruled South Africa. It was well-organized, multi-layered, and engaged in a range of criminal activities that threatened the economic and social order in the home country and beyond. Their activities included money laundering and mineral rights violations. A plea bargain and the promise of adequate security encouraged a gang member to yell at the union, leading to their elimination. Other examples abound.
The Nigerian Witness Protection Bill is compact, yet comprehensive and well thought out. It consists of seven parts and 63 sections. Part 1 sets out the purposes and application of the witness protection procedure and defines the meaning of witness within the meaning of the Act. The next part provides for the establishment and management of the witness program, stipulating how a person can apply for protection, how applicants would be assessed, protection of a minor, rules of confidentiality, interface with international agencies at purposes of witness protection, and the process for terminating a protective regime.
Other sections of the bill deal with the protection of a witness against identification; the creation of a witness protection fund; offenses and penalties for false or misleading disclosures, and various matters regarding the agency and those involved in the administration of witness protection.
The nation should be grateful to hardworking legislators like Senator Abdul Kwari who strive to establish criteria for right and wrong, and thus help to enthrone the rule of law in the country. But beyond crafting good laws, the National Assembly should put more effort into oversight functions, to ensure that the laws are strictly enforced in a way that produces the intended benefits. This is not a call for an unnecessary confrontation with the executive arm of government.
Njoku writes from Kaduna.