By Jarryl Bryan
The upcoming Witness Protection Bill 2017 will contain a slew of new measures designed to deter the leaking of information that could compromise those the bill is intended to protect. New measures include stiff penalties, such as 10 years in jail for disclosures and bribery.
Part VI of the long awaited bill binds anyone, including participants or former participants, from disclosing information in relation to the programme upon the pain of a million-dollar fine and 10 years in prison.
According to Section 20 (1), this law applies to anyone who, without lawful authority, reveals information about the identity or location of someone who participated in the witness protection programme, which disclosure can compromise those persons’ safety.
Anyone who discloses information which compromises the integrity of the programme also commits an offence. In the case of participants, one does not even have to be part of the programme for the proviso to apply.
Section 20 (2) stipulates that someone who underwent assessment to be considered for inclusion into the programme is barred from revealing their participation. They also cannot provide information as to the modus operandi of the programme.
These participants are also barred from revealing information about any operatives working in the Administrative Centre that will coordinate many of these witness protection activities.
Those subject to the stipulations cannot make unauthorized disclosures about the memorandum of understanding they have to sign to be admitted to the programme.
Lastly, Section 20 (3) of the proposed bill prohibits persons from bribing or offering any inducements to persons employed with the programme in exchange for information which could put a participant in danger or compromise the programme’s integrity. Any employee who accepts such a bribe or inducement in exchange for information is also committing an offence.
According to Section 20 (4) of the Act, “A person who commits an offence (listed) under subsection (1), (2) or (3) is liable on summary conviction to a fine of one million dollars and to imprisonment for ten years.”
The Witness Protection Bill makes provision for an administrative centre which would handle identity changes. The bill also allows for the centre to withdraw this protection and restore the identity of the former participant, in which case he or she is allowed 28 days to apply to the President of Guyana for a review of the centre’s decision.
The bill states that if protection is withdrawn, the former participant must return all documents which were provided for their new identity within seven days of being requested to do so. Failure to do so is also an offence.
According to Section 20 (5) of the Act, “A person who, without reasonable doubt, fails to return the documents in accordance with (Section 17, 5), commits an offence, and is liable upon summary conviction to a fine of five hundred thousand dollars and imprisonment for five years.”
For years, Police have complained about difficulties with certain crimes, owing to the lack of witnesses. Some have posited that crimes are recorded as unsolved, or remain a mystery possibly because witnesses are not brave enough to testify, or they are afraid to be held accountable for someone’s sentencing.
At a recent seminar, Principal Parliamentary Counsel Joann Bond pointed out that the Witness Protection Programme is designed to protect persons involved in both civil and criminal matters.
“Persons may request protection in cases of murder, manslaughter, money laundering, sexual offences, anti-terrorism, and domestic violence. Once the bill becomes a law, the programme will be administered, and an administrative centre, an investigative agency, and a protective agency (will be established),” Bond explained.
The administrative centre, she continued, would then collaborate with the Head of State, the Attorney General, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), and the Commissioner of Police.
Furthermore, in an effort to promote transparency, that criteria would be placed as a gatekeeping function for application, so as to prevent abuse of the programme.
“Persons may want to use the programme as an escape, as a way out, to finding a new life with a new identity. As such, the administrative centre will carefully review the importance of evidence and statements. If your evidence is not enough to lead to a conviction, there may be no need for you applying for the programme,” the Principal Parliamentary Counsel posited.
The bill currently sits on the Order Paper of the National Assembly. It is expected to be laid in the House along with the Protected Disclosures Bill after proceedings resume.