Witnesses are protected

John Jeffrey, Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development

In the article “Preventing social ills starts with parents instilling personal values” (Southern Mail, March 23), Community Safety MEC Dan Plato is quoted as having said that “witnesses are not being protected in courtrooms”.

South Africa has an internationally acclaimed witness protection programme that many other countries would like to have.

Participation in the programme is, however, voluntary. Witnesses are offered witness protection, but no role-player in the criminal justice system – not the South African Police Service, nor the National Prosecuting Authority – can force a witness to go into a witness protection programme.

The Office for Witness Protection (OWP) is established in terms of the Witness Protection Act providing protection, support and related services to vulnerable and intimidated witnesses and their related persons, thereby enabling such witnesses to testify without intimidation, fear or danger.

Witnesses and the evidence they provide in criminal matters are crucial in securing the successful prosecution of criminals. This is even more apparent in cases of organised crime such as gang-related crimes, drug-related crimes and human trafficking. Witness protection means both physical and psychological protection.

What the public should be made aware of is that a witness can ask for witness protection. They can ask SAPS – either the investigating officer who is investi-gating the case, a station commander or anyone in charge at any police station. If they are in a correctional centre, they can approach the person in charge of that correctional centre.

If they are testifying in a case, they can approach the prose-cutor, the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Office of Witness Protection or the presiding officer in any judicial proceeding.

Even if witnesses are offered protection, not every person who is offered witness protection will agree to go on the programme as the conditions the witness has to agree to comply with are very strict.

For the past 15 years no witness or related person was refused admission to the programme.

Our Witness Protection Act is an advanced and visionary piece of legislation that provides that if a witness has reason to believe that his or her life may be in danger they may apply for witness protection. In other words, there need not be an actual physical or verbal threat.

If a person is in immediate danger, arrangements will be made for the person’s removal. This is what is known as temporary protection. The act provides for temporary protection so that threat assessments can be conducted to determine the actual level of threat, namely high risk, medium risk or low risk. All stake holders and partners in the criminal justice system provide input into the process.

Once the threat is verified, the person is then placed under protection until the conclusion of their testimony or the judicial proceedings.

If a witness is placed under protection such a witness or related person will have to sign a protection agreement. In these agreements witnesses must agree to abide by all the rules of the protection programme, which generally involve not revealing information about the programme. Stringent conditions are necessary to ensure the safety of witnesses and their loved ones as well as the safety of the witness protection officers and everyone related to the programme.

Being placed under protection does not mean that witnesses are in the protection programme forever.

Upon discharge from the programme a witness may be given a new identity and/or may be relocated. The discharge process is a caring and humane one and requires that a formal written discharge agreement is entered into.

Some witnesses enter the witness protection programme but choose, for whatever reason, not to remain in the programme.

Witness protection is very costly. And it is not an easy process. Protection includes placing a witness and their family in a safe house which is furnished, at state expense. If a witness is unemployed, they receive an allowance for basic needs and if they are employed, they get a replacement salary. If a witness has minor children, arrangements are made so that they can go to another school. Witness protection is literally life-changing and therefore certain people will choose not to go into the programme.

There have been instances, in which witnesses were harmed or killed, but in these cases witness protection was offered to them, but they did not want to be admitted to the witness protection programme.

There have also been instances where witnesses have given their testimony and, despite the recommendations by the OWP that they cannot go back to their homes, they nonetheless insist on returning.

The success of a witness protection programme lies in ensuring the safety of witnesses and their loved ones and their strict compliance to the rules of the programme and protection agreement.

No witnesses or related persons have been harmed, threatened or killed whilst on our witness protection programme during the last 14 years. Therein lies our success.

Mr Plato’s comments that “witnesses are not being protected in courtrooms” are unfortunate. Role-players in the criminal justice system are always encouraging potential witnesses to come forward to testify in court, as that is the only way we can ensure that criminals are put behind bars. These potential witnesses may now, because of Mr Plato’s unfortunate comments, think twice before they come forward.