Witness protection a concern

Protecting witnesses in high profile criminal cases remains a major concern of Caribbean political leaders, according to Cayman Islands Attorney General Samuel Bulgin.

‘Truth be told, I don’t think as a region we’re moving quickly enough to address this very worrying trend,’ Mr. Bulgin told delegates of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association’s meeting in Cayman last week.

‘It is common knowledge among regional members that we have…times where witnesses have been shot, killed or…intimidated by accused persons or persons connected to them.’

Mr. Bulgin informed delegates that the Caribbean Community (Caricom) has been looking into a criminal justice protection scheme for quite a while. But he said such a system has not materialised.

‘For some reason, they can’t seem to put it together,’ Mr. Bulgin said in response to delegates’ questions.

He said the British Overseas Territories are actively pursuing a witness protection programme for themselves. He said the agreement, once finalised, would allow other independent states to join.

Cayman does not have a formal witness protection programme in place, but the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service has in the past provided security for certain witnesses on an as-needed basis.

The problem in overseas territories like Cayman, where crime is relatively low, is far less a concern than in high-crime Caribbean nations, which see significant drug traffic.

The United Nations International Drug Control Programme has a mutual legal assistance treaty in place for the Caribbean region. It addresses cooperation in recording witness statements and transferring witnesses, but the treaty does not specifically speak to the issue of witness protection.

‘Part of the problem…is funding,’ Mr. Bulgin said. ‘It’s an extremely expensive measure to move a witness from one territory to another.’

The money problem is not just limited to witness protection, according to other regional lawmakers.

‘Protection of the witness himself or herself is certainly not enough in small communities…because of the families and spouses being left behind,’ said Trinidad and Tobago Senator Ramesh Deosaran.

Mr. Deosaran said delays in the criminal justice system can worsen witness protection problems.

‘We have cases across the Caribbean…where serious murder cases, kidnappings, take six or seven years to complete,’ he said. ‘So, if you say it’s too expensive, we have to look at that in terms of…reforming the whole administration of justice itself.’

Senator Wayne Caines of Bermuda said his country has tried to improve witness protection by setting up a crime-stoppers police tip line in the U.S.

‘Everything was done outside of Bermuda, and that has proved most helpful in the last few months,’ Mr. Caines said.

‘Witness protection cannot be done by itself,’ he said.

The conference delegates generally agreed that greater and more reliable access to forensic services, including DNA evidence testing, was also needed in the region.

Cayman has such an evidence testing lab housed within the Health Services Authority.

‘We’re looking at the provision of forensic services for our regional counterparts, with special emphasis on quality of services and turn-around time,’ Mr. Bulgin told conference delegates.

He said sending evidence to US labs can often result in a wait of six months to a year for results and raises concerns about evidence handling.

Eventually, Mr. Bulgin said some kind of funding pool would have to be set up among the Caribbean countries if the issue of witness protection is to be resolved.

‘Each time we have a crisis then we have a talk and as soon as the issue dies down, the will sort of dissipates,’ he said.

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