Despite the best efforts of the Opposition to scrap the ‘Assistance to and protection of victims of crime and witnesses’ Bill, which is popularly known as the Witness Protection Bill, Minister of Justice Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe yesterday tabled it in Parliament, calling it a timely need of the country.
Minister Rajapakshe said that former Minister of Justice Rauff Hakeem took a keen interest in drafting the Bill during his tenure and therefore they would not politicise it.
“Since 1833, laws were available to counter offences and this Bill is directly related to criminal offences. However, we had no clear system in place to protect the rights of victims. People expect impartial and independent decisions from our legal system, which is based on witnesses. During the past, we found it difficult to get witnesses in open courts. People were scared to give evidence. In certain years 96% of the accused went free in the absence of witnesses. We saw the importance of this law almost a decade ago,” Rajapakshe said.
Opposition MP Shantha Bandara, who stood against the tabling of this Bill, accused Minister Rajapakshe of violating the usual protocol of Parliament by failing to obtain the approval of the Advisory Committee before presenting the Bill to the House.
However, former Justice Minister Hakeem, speaking about the Bill, said it had been there on the drawing board since 2000 and this was a new version of the same Bill.
“It was debated and adjourned after two days of debate. This Bill is important and it is time that we pass this Bill without getting committee approval,” Hakeem said.
Joining the debate, Minister Lakshman Kiriella tabled a 2008 hansard report which said that the Witness Protection Bill was taken up in Parliament earlier and pointed out that therefore it was not necessary to have Advisory Committee approval to present the Bill in Parliament.
Ultimately the debate came to an end after Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa advised MP Shantha Bandara to check his facts before raising another objection through Standing Orders.
The Witness Protection Bill is expected to secure the rights of victims and witnesses of crime and secure the protection and promotion of such rights and entitlements.
The Bill will set out the rights and entitlements of victims and witnesses and the protection and promotion of such rights and entitlements. It will also be in line with appropriate international norms, standards and best practices relating to the protection of victims and witnesses.
Other elements incorporated into the Bill include the establishment of a national authority for the protection of victims of crime and witnesses, the payment of compensation to victims of crime and the establishment of a fund which will aid victims and witnesses.
By Ashwin Hemmathagama /Daily FT