Presentation at Bar Association event on victim and witness protection
The Police Department is expected to set up a division to assist and protect victims and witnesses of crime by the end of this month.
The inauguration of the unit — prescribed under the Assistance to and Protection of Victims of Crime and Witnesses Act passed last year — is “tentatively scheduled” for September 29, police sources told the Sunday Times. But they also said the Department faces hurdles in ensuring its effective implementation, including finding staff and finances.
A building has already been identified at Mihindu Mawatha in Colombo 12 for the headquarters of the ‘Victims of Crime and Witnesses Assistance and Protection Division’. Money will be taken from the Police Department’s budget to meet the “expensive” monthly rent. Materials and human resources will also be drawn from the Department.
The duties of the Division are to provide effective and necessary protection to victims of crime and witnesses; and to investigate complaints, allegations or information pertaining to threats, reprisals, intimidations, retaliations or any harm, harassment, coercion or violation being committed on victims of crime and witnesses and their property.
The plan is to create three units within the division–two for investigations and one for administration–each with 20 police officers. An advertisement calling for applications from police officers who wish to gain transfers to the new outfit has already attracted about 117 responses. A senior police officer said that it had been decided to conduct individual interviews as the division was unlike others that the Department had.
In the longer-term, more branches will be opened around the country. Given the considerable challenge in getting the operation off the ground, however, it was not possible to say when this would be, police sources said. “These are practical difficulties in putting this to work,” one said. “As it is, we are fighting to create more police stations.” The question of where to house witnesses and victims of crime seeking the Division’s protection was also not resolved.
Meanwhile, the National Authority for the Protection of Victims of Crime and Witnesses was recently reconstituted. It is chaired by Solicitor General Suhada Gamlath and has an office in Battaramulla. Its first Chairman, retired High Court Judge Wimal Nambuwasam, vacated the position after a few months. He, too, had not been sufficiently resourced to carry out the tasks prescribed in the new law.
The Authority has already received five representations from victims or witnesses requiring protection, Deputy Solicitor General Yasantha Kodagoda said this week at a public forum organised by the Bar Association of Sri Lanka on understanding the Victims and Witness Protection Act. As there was no in-house protection service available at present, these have been referred to the Inspector General of Police for ‘threat assessment’. Thereafter, necessary protection will be afforded in terms of the law with available professionals within the Police Department.
It was raised at the forum that there were concerns over the police being tasked with protecting victims and witnesses. Globally, witness protection units were separate and independent. Mr Gamlath admitted that areas of possible conflict have to be addressed if the State was serious about making the system work.
“Certain legal structures will have to be brought into this law to fortify the system and to address these concerns,” he said, adding that a Committee has been appointed by the Justice Minister to revisit some provisions. “These matters will also be raised with them to make effective changes in the law. The possibility of conflict is a realistic point and we have to be mindful of that.”
Victims and witnesses have to be confident the State will provide protection, said Ambika Satkunanathan, a member of the Human Rights Commission. “Best practice states that victim and witness protection unit must be independent from other state entities to ensure objectivity, confidentiality, accountability and operational readiness,” she said.
She warned that affording protection to these categories of people was a capital and resource-intensive exercise. Failure to allocate adequate financial resources means the mechanism is destined to fail.
Ms Satkunanathan also raised several questions. For instance, were resources available to protect the families of victims and witnesses; how would protection be afforded if there were a large number of victims; what happens if police attached to the Victim Protection Division are accused of harassment and intimidation; and how will police be trained in methods and means of providing protection?
“It’s been over a year since the law was enacted,” said Bhavani Fonseka, a researcher and lawyer with the Centre for Policy Alternatives. “It’s a shame we are talking about its different provisions now. There has to be greater outreach in terms of what this is.”
She welcomed moves to amend the law. A key issue was that a lot of the recommendations that could be made by the Authority were non-binding, she said. “One of the things, if the reforms go through, is to ensure the enforceability of recommendations as well as the independence of those in the Authority and (Protection) Division,” she stressed.
Attorney-at-Law Nalinda Indatissa also spoke while Prashantha Lal De Alwis, President’s Council, moderated the forum.