Experts want witness protection law fast-tracked

The absence of a witness protection law is affecting the trial of suspects for crimes such as defilement and terrorism, experts including judicial officers disclosed on Tuesday as they pushed for a relevant law

Uganda does not yet have a specific law on witness protection, even though some institutions such as Police and the judiciary have mechanisms to protect witnesses.

Uganda Law Reform Commission, United Nations Office of the High Commissioner and Avocats Sans Frontiers, a legal charity, are pushing for a speedy enactment of a witness protection bill into law.

The proposed law seeks to establish a witness protection agency and a witness protection programme to guarantee safety of witnesses before, during and after court proceedings.

At a consultative meeting on Tuesday, Vastina Nsanze, the chairperson of the Uganda Law Reform Commission said the planned law was necessary to protect witnesses.

“Different organs of government have ways of protecting witnesses but this is not efficient; what we are looking for is a law and an independent institution to manage that process,” she explained.

The Belgian ambassador to Uganda, Hugo Verbist said the enactment of the law would put Uganda on the same path as Kenya and South Africa which have prioritized witness protection in judicial system.

In Africa, Kenya and South Africa are two of the countries found to have dependable witness protection programmes, according to a study conducted by the law reform commission.

Verbist noted that that protection of witnesses was particularly crucial in the trial of sensitive cases such as war crimes, genocide and human rights offences where witness testimonies guarantee conviction.

Under the proposed law, the state will provide protection to people who face intimidation or potential risk as a result of the sensitive information they hold about cases before courts of law.

In some countries, people under witness protection whose lives are deemed to be in danger can be taken into protective custody and withdrawn from public life for their own safety.

Justice and constitutional affairs minister, Kahinda Otafiire has promised to table the bill, formulated in 2015, before Cabinet for discussion and consideration.